Editor’s Note: Our recurring “Portrait of the Artist” playlist series pays homage to the artists responsible for the most inspired and indispensable discographies of all time. We hope you enjoy these tributes, and stay tuned for many more to come.
According to Merriam-Webster, a renaissance man is defined as “a person who has wide interests and is expert in several areas.” A modern-day musical renaissance man, head and shoulders above his peers, Damon Albarn embodies this description with every ounce of his soul and spirit.
Across his prolific, 25-year recording career that formally began in 1991 with Blur’s debut album Leisure and continues stronger than ever today with rumors of a new Gorillaz long player on the near horizon, Albarn has taken the winding road less traveled. Indeed, relative to his fellow Britpop poster boys (Brett Anderson, Jarvis Cocker, and his one-time rivals, the Brothers Gallagher) and post-Britpop brethren (Richard Ashcroft, Chris Martin, Thom Yorke), Albarn has cultivated the most intriguingly varied and unequivocally rewarding recorded repertoire of the bunch.
Much of Albarn’s undeniable charm and dynamism derive from his proven penchant for calculated risk-taking, his unrivaled fearlessness and open-mindedness in evolving his sonic palette beyond the tried-and-true. Albarn very well could have traversed the safe route and milked his role within Blur for all it was worth, but he didn’t. Instead, he founded the genre-defying virtual band Gorillaz with the artist Jamie Hewlett in 1998, and the group has released four celebrated studio albums since.
Then his musical compass led him to Africa. There he collaborated with Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabaté & Friends on 2002’s Mali Music, a troupe of musicians from the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 2011’s Kinshasa One Two, and various Malian musicians on 2013’s Maison Des Jeunes as part of his Africa Express initiative.
Over the years, Albarn has also partnered closely with Tony Allen, the Nigerian drummer and composer who originally cut his chops as the musical director of Fela Kuti’s band Africa ’70. Together with Allen, Albarn has formed two supergroups: The Good, The Bad & The Queen along with Paul Simonon (The Clash) and Simon Tong (The Verve) in 2006, and Rocket Juice & the Moon with Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) in 2008.
Lest we forget that Albarn has also composed music for a handful of screen and stage soundtracks during the past twenty years, and found time in 2014 to release the brilliant Everyday Robots, his acclaimed first proper solo album. Not to mention that he reunited last year with his old chums Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree to deliver The Magic Whip, Blur’s excellent eighth studio LP and first since 2003’s Think Tank.
An eternally restless workhorse with an unquenchable thirst for musical adventure, Albarn continues to refine his already unparalleled legacy with each subsequent recording, and shows nary a sign of succumbing to contented complacence anytime soon, if ever. "As soon as it sounds fine, I'm on to the next thing, man," Albarn once confided to NME.
We are thrilled to have curated this expansive 85-track playlist of Albarn’s finest moments to date, spanning each of the aforementioned groups and projects, plus special guest spots on records by Tony Allen, Fatboy Slim, and Massive Attack.