It’s incredible to think that Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s animated quartet Gorillaz have now been going for more than twenty years. Since officially ‘forming’ in 1998, the virtual group has gone through numerous changes both musical and creative, mutating and evolving with the times while always retaining a signature sound of their own.
That’s the wonder of Gorillaz, in that there’s such a wealth of creativity and innovation contained within the band’s many different phases, drawing upon such a range of styles and influences that it can be hard to pin them down or neatly categorise them as this, that or the other.
That, thankfully, makes one of this century’s most innovative artists perfect for testing hi-fi, speakers and headphones, as you’ll never be short of something that will give any prospective purchase a wide, varied array of music to contend with.
Feel Good Inc. ft. De La Soul (Demon Days, 2005)
Like the best of Gorillaz’s ever-increasing catalogue, Feel Good Inc. draws on a wide and eclectic variety of musical influences ranging from indie rock to funk and classic hip-hop.
All of this makes Feel Good Inc. ideal fodder for testing out speakers and hi-fi, mainly because there’s so much for your new gear to get its teeth into and so much variety to reveal strengths and expose weaknesses. The musical character of those now-iconic, bass-driven verses, complete with megaphone-filtered vocals and heavy drum beats, have a completely distinct musical flavour from the song’s melancholic, wistful chorus. Add to that an energetic, storming hip-hop cameo from De La Soul and you’ve got about three test tracks in one.
Here, then, it's a question of seeing how your speakers bring out the character of each of the song's moods and then assessing whether or not there's enough light, shade and colour to the arrangement.
Rhinestone Eyes (Plastic Beach, 2010)
Electro-funk environmental anthem Rhinestone Eyes has enjoyed something of a renaissance recently thanks to social media platforms such as TikTok, giving a fantastically underrated track a second lease of life and proving that the younger generations aren’t entirely without hope in terms of music taste.
For such a simple song that seems to essentially play in a 2/4 march signature, there’s quite a lot to unpack. From those muted synth verses to the really meaty electronic signatures as the choruses flash into life, you won’t be short on things to pick out during your listening sessions.
Rhinestone Eyes is also an excellent choice for seeing how a new pair of headphones perform, so if you've just bought some new cans, see how they fare picking out the texture of those electronic sounds or the timbre of Albarn's voice.
New Gold ft. Tame Impala & Bootie Brown (Cracker Island, 2023)
There’s a real late-’70s, early-’80s disco vibe to New Gold, complete with those classic synth sounds and funky electronic beats that must have made it such a great time to break out your flares and hit the light-up chequerboard dance floor.
It’s all about the beat and flow with New Gold. Poor audio makes a track sound thin and a bit rigid, but more expressive systems will reveal rhythm and sway to get your head bopping along like a man who’s just ordered a White Russian as the light glints off of his perfectly polished faux-gold medallion. What a time to be alive.
DARE ft. Shaun Ryder (Demon Days, 2005)
By far and away the virtual outfit’s most danceable tune, DARE is the track you go to when you want your speakers to let their metaphorical hair down. Relentlessly bouncy and infectiously energetic from beginning to end, DARE is the sort of song for which you crank up the volume and invite your friends around to enjoy the good times.
With our more serious consumer advice hat on, DARE’s credentials as a proper test track are well-earned. There’s that funky drum beat, dirty bass tones and small textural flourishes that all need to hang together, all while delivering the infectious fun and energy that makes this one of the band’s finest hours. Or 4.04 minutes, to be precise.
Like Rhinestone Eyes, this is a strong choice for a new set of cans. Pop on a pair and try to feel the bouncy, explosive fun of Gorillaz's most hip-shaking hit.
Silent Running ft. Adeleye Omotayo (Cracker Island, 2023)
The fourth track from Gorillaz’s latest album Cracker Island (well worth checking out, by the way) is easily one of the best, no mean feat considering the quality on display across the board.
A bit synth-y, a little bit new wave-y, maybe with hints of funk and soul running through its veins, Silent Running sees Albarn’s knack for catchy earworms with layered instrumentation on full display again. It’s the delivery of the twin vocals that should really stand out, and you’ll want to be enraptured by the vulnerability on display from lines like “rowdy waves and your energy, you pulled me fragile from the wreckage”.
Cracker Island ft. Thundercat (Cracker Island, 2023)
The very enjoyable title track from Gorillaz’s polished eighth album is one of its heaviest hitters, melding synth sounds and punchy percussion with raw vocals and some enjoyable occult-esque lyrics. Much like an earlier offering such as DARE, it’s a tune that hits hard from the get-go and refuses to relent throughout.
The real fun of Cracker Island, though, is Thundercat’s groovy, meandering bassline which gives the entire ensemble a distinctly funky flavour. If you’re keen to see how your speakers are able to keep up with tricky passages in the lower registers, take a visit to Cracker Island.
19-2000 Soulchild Remix (Gorillaz, 2001)
19-2000 is a fun track in its own right, but it’s completely transformed by the funky flavour added by the Soulchild remix, a track that will be familiar to anyone who enjoyed the intro to FIFA 2002 back in the day. We are old.
As with most Gorillaz compositions (or remixes thereof), it’s all about the arrangement, with a playful piano bed and drum beat anchoring the verses before a twangy guitar and backing vocals kick it up a gear. There are also the usual bells and whistles knocking around in the background, so it’s a fun test to see not only how your speakers make these instruments sound, but how and where they place them across the sonic landscape.
On Melancholy Hill (Plastic Beach, 2010)
Gorillaz took a more mature, introspective turn towards the release of their third album, Plastic Beach, exemplified by the record’s third track On Melancholy Hill. Filled with delicate synth sounds and Albarn’s detached yet somehow unfalteringly honest singing style, it’s a song that has an inexplicable knack for burrowing under your skin and unlocking that weird, nostalgic part of your brain’s inner recesses.
It’s the tone and feel of the song that should really be conveyed by a transparent set of speakers, and when the emotion you’re supposed to be feeling is literally displayed in the title, you should know exactly what to look out for during your listening sessions.
Tranz (The Now Now, 2018)
Tranz is Gorillaz at their earworm-y best, a sort of new wave/synth pop fusion that at once seems as though it belongs in another time yet all the while feeling contemporary and forward-thinking.
The fuzzy synth sound at the heart of the ensemble should be given its proper texture and feeling, the kick drums should feel snappy and punchy, while perfect separation should be given to the various instruments all coalescing into one satisfying package. It’s also immense fun, so see if you’re actually enjoying your listening experience as you go. That’s the point, after all.
Désolé ft. Fatoumata Diawara (Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, 2020)
Like so many Gorillaz tracks, Désolé’s superficial simplicity belies a more complex arrangement beneath the surface, an arrangement that slowly but surely adds layers of texture and dynamism across its six-minute run time.
There’s lots for a good system to unpack here, like those chilled, twangy guitar strums being played above that loose, meandering bass line, not to mention guest vocalist Fatoumata Diawara’s raw, distinctive vocals contrasting perfectly with Albarn’s quieter, more restrained performance. Great for assessing your system’s organisational abilities.
Pac-Man ft. ScHoolboy Q (Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, 2020)
If you’re seeking a candidate for showcasing your new speakers’ sense of dynamic punch, might we offer Pac-Man as the optimal choice? Anchored by a constant, kick-kick-snare drum pattern and some appropriately electronic bleeps and tones, Pac-Man should really make you feel like tapping your toes along to its infectiously rhythmic beat.
ScHoolboy Q’s energetic, fast-flow rap verse should be conveyed with pace and energy while also getting enough texture from Q’s distinctive presentational style.
Humility ft. George Benson (The Now Now, 2018)
There aren’t many better summer tunes than Humility, a laid-back, easy-listening piece of pop-funk that makes the perfect accompaniment to a summer drive, poolside barbecue or lazy evening lying in the park. Thanks to George Benson’s jazzy guitar licks and Albarn’s light, airy and somewhat reassuring vocal performance, this song is, as the kids say, a vibe.
Much like the music video, Humility should make you feel as though you’re rollerblading along Miami beach while wearing old-school gym shorts, white socks and a pair of really good over-ear headphones.
Clint Eastwood ft. DEL the Funky Homosapien (Gorillaz, 2001)
One of Gorillaz’ most enduringly popular hits (680 million YouTube views and counting) came at a time when Damon Albarn’s virtual project was just starting to forge a reputation for big, bold and accessible pop-rock tunes that would appeal to a broad musical church of listeners.
Melding rock, pop and hip-hop influences into a singularly digestible package, Clint Eastwood is defined by the rhythmic pulse of its march-like drum beat and that light, instantly recognisable bass hook. DEL the Funky Homosapien’s rap is rather splendid, too.
Empire Ants ft. Little Dragon (Plastic Beach, 2010)
Another track held in extremely high regard by both over-serious music journos (like us) and merch-sporting Gorillaz disciples, the seventh track on the excellent Plastic Beach is the sort of composition you could get lost in.
Starting out as a haunting, ethereal number consisting of Albarn’s muted singing and some glistening percussive interludes, things then kick up a notch, with funky, bassy tones accompanied by Yukimi Naganos’ floaty, echoey vocal performance. Immerse yourself in it entirely, then step back and unpick each little snare sound, vocal tremor and electronic synth hit.
Aries ft. Peter Hook & Georgia (Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, 2020)
Aries is another slice of new wave, alt-rock goodness courtesy of everyone’s favourite virtual performers, a song that rarely gets attention from the mainstream but that many Gorillaz devotees consider to be one of the group’s finest works.
Again, everything here is arranged and produced to perfection, not surprising considering that contributions come courtesy of former Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook. Wistful, chilled and a little spaced out, Aries should transform you to another place and time altogether when playing through your hi-fi or headphones.