Though Gorillaz' fifth album Humanz isn't due out until the end of April, we already know it promises to be a very guest-heavy LP, with Damon Albarn sharing vocal duties with (or relinquishing them completely to) Benjamin Clementine, Popcaan, Vince Staples, Savages' Jehnny Beth, D.R.A.M., and most recently, Pusha T and Mavis Staples.
It takes a certain kind of sensitivity as a songwriter to be able to step back from your work and say "I'm not the right person to sing this song." You can find much of that self-awareness in the British musician's output with the virtual group he and Jamie Hewlett created in 1998. Not only is Albarn skilled in recruiting vocalists with defined voices and personalities, he also knows just how to deploy them in his music to sustain particular moods, and to get across certain ideas or themes.
Whether it be grime, trip-hop, or soul, here's our ranking of the 20 best guest vocalists to appear on a Gorillaz song, and how they bring the cartoon band to life.
1. Del The Funkee Homosapien - "Clint Eastwood," "Rock The House"
As the lead single from 2001's Gorillaz, "Clint Eastwood" was the first taste we had of Albarn's Blur side project, leveraging Del The Funkee Homosapien as the voice of Russell possessed to help define the group's hip-hop-meets-Brit-pop sound. His performance set the bar for the kind of energy and personality any subsequent guest vocalist had to bring to a Gorillaz song, and hasn't been topped since.
2. Shaun Ryder - "DARE"
While most of the melodic heavy lifting in "DARE" is courtesy of Rosie Wilson, Happy Mondays' Shaun Ryder is left to do his own thing, and colours outside the lines with a brash, in-your-face performance. His dopey, almost out-of-time delivery is a strong counterpoint to the song's glittery, lithe beat.
3. De La Soul - "Feel Good Inc," "Superfast Jellyfish"
Though Del undoubtedly set the pace, leave it to old school hip-hop outfit De La Soul to bring their larger-than-life personalities to both "Feel Good Inc" and "Superfast Jellyfish." It's clear from their equally enjoyable two features that they revel in the kind of distorted colours and exaggeration that a project like this allows.
4. Bobby Womack - "Stylo," "Cloud of Unknowing," "Bobby In Phoenix"
The late singer-songwriter Bobby Womack was one of Gorillaz' most fruitful collaborators, appearing on three varied but memorable tracks. Like a raw soul power multi-tool, he's an absolute force on "Stylo," drives the immense feeling of longing on "Cloud of Unknowing" home, while conveying a religious reverence for a city on "Bobby In Phoenix."
5. Little Dragon - "Empire Ants," "To Binge"
The jury seems to be out as to whether Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano is singing on the record as Gorillaz character Noodle, or herself, but either way both "Empire Ants" and "To Binge" are the standout highlights from Plastic Beach. While there's a softness and distance to her voice, when it arrives in the coda of the former it commandeers the song itself—her mere presence fundamentally changing its structure and direction.
6. Bashy & Kano - "White Flag"
Grime luminaries Bashy and Kano share the sixth spot because their performance on "White Flag" is really a dialog. The duo act like kind of Greek chorus, setting the scene in a playful exchange for what we can expect to see on the island of Plastic Beach, as well as the record's eco-friendly politics.
7. Tina Weymouth - "19-2000"
Certain Gorillaz songs feel as though Albarn is not only recruiting the guest collaborator, but their history as well. Case in point, Tina Weymouth arrives on the chorus of "19-2000" with a goofy lyric about shoeshine, which feels like a nod to her work as a member of Talking Heads, and specifically, Tom Tom Club. Both groups were known for setting nonsensical lyrics to fun, irreverent music, and this song about conspicuous consumption has her playing to those strengths.
8. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) - "Stylo," "Sweepstakes"
Before Bobby Womack could send out a shock in "Stylo," Yasiin Bey is there front-and-centre setting up the charge. On "Sweepstakes," the rapper weaves his words around the off-kilter beat, and funky drums and horns courtesy of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, which flatten like an oversized cheque. When Bey and the band connect it's a thing of beauty.
9. Dennis Hopper - "Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head"
Few songs stick out in the Gorillaz discography like "Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head" does, and it's all due to Dennis Hopper, and his faithful reading of the spoken word part. The music seems built around the actor's voice, complimenting the natural meter and cadence to his words.
10. London Community Gospel Choir - "Don't Get Lost In Heaven," "Demon Days"
Gorillaz are consistently great in the way they use the album form to tell a story, letting individual tracks speak for themselves, but also to each other. There's no better example of this than the transition from "Don't Get Lost In Heaven" to the title track of Demon Days, guided by the London Community Gospel Choir repeating the phrase "to the sun."
11. Martina Topley-Bird - "All Alone"
Given that the concept for Gorillaz came as a riff on Massive Attack (2D, 3D, get it?), velvet-voiced Tricky collaborator Martina Topley-Bird is a welcome and fitting presence on the dubby "All Alone." Her vocal part is arguably the highlight and centrepiece of the song, cutting through its bassy beats with her own divine light.
12. Vince Staples - "Ascension"
"You are now tuned in to the tomb of Jehovah." Out of all the songs we've heard so far from the upcoming Humanz, Vince Staples is the guest who sounds like he gets it the most. Competing with air raid sirens, the Long Beach rapper's verses are both loud and urgent, but as the song builds into an apocalyptic bounce track, it might be all you need to drop that ass one last time.
13. Roots Manuva - "All Alone"
The UK rap veteran runs circles around the song's squeaky beat and makes it look effortless, reminding us all why he's called manuva to begin with.
14. Ibrahim Ferrer - "Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo)"
Because Dan The Automator's sample-heavy sounds informed so much of the Gorillaz identity early on, it's no stretch to think that the role guest vocalists play to the group act like samples themselves. Considering how strong Buena Vista Social Club's Ibrahim Ferrer is on this Gorillaz cut, and Albarn's own penchants for international sounds, it's surprising there aren't more language-spanning songs in the Gorillaz discography.
15. MF Doom - "November Has Come"
Sticking with the chorus, Albarn passes the verses to the elusive, verbose MC himself, who brings his A-game and throws bars like elbows.
16. Mark E. Smith - "Glitter Freeze"
For much of the later, noisier part of his Blur career, Damon Albarn had aped Mark E Smith's vocal delivery, so it's nice to hear the two together on "Glitter Freeze" with the latter doing his best curmudgeon. His contribution is minimal, but there's really no one better to play the equivalent of a bridge troll urging people to turn back.
17. Neneh Cherry - "Kids With Guns"
While there's not much to Neneh Cherry's part on "Kids With Guns," and it's almost inaudible thanks to Danger Mouse's dulled production, Cherry still manages to do a lot with very little here. Her hushed and repeated "push it, push it, real" entices like a devil on a shoulder.
18. Miho Hatori - "Re-Hash"
"Re-Hash" could easily be mistaken for a Blur song, the one project that Albarn was trying to move away from when he debuted Gorillaz to the world. As the first song on the 2001 debut, this similar sound seems purposeful—even its title acknowledges it, but what sets it apart from the work Albarn had done before is Miho Hatori's presence. It plays out like a purposeful re-tread that in fact leads to some very new places.
19. D.R.A.M. - "Andromeda"
Like Neneh Cherry, D.R.A.M. is another contributor who seems like they could've been used in a more definitive way, and what he brings to the table makes you wish you could hear more. That said, he does good by his supportive role on this track, sprinkling ad-libs and "oooh yeahs" throughout like space dust.
20. Lou Reed - "Some Kind of Nature"
Lou Reed is typical Lou Reed here, and while it's not great, it's not Lulu either. Albarn hones in on the Velvet Undergound founder's trademark stilted vocal delivery, and even exaggerates how stiff it is in places, creating a strong contrast between the song's title and the unnatural way those words are actually being delivered.
Michael Rancic is on Twitter.