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Damon Albarn

Damon Albarn is the grand conceptualist of the Britpop era, the musician who spearheaded its blend of knowingly retro aesthetics and modernist verve through his work with Blur in the mid-'90s. Blur brought Albarn stardom when Parklife became a pop phenomenon in 1994, but after its 1995 sequel, The Great Escape, the band steered in a noisier, artier course. Such shifts in direction became a signature of Albarn's career. Once Blur began to fray at the dawn of the 2000s, he founded Gorillaz, a virtual pop group whose international fame soon eclipsed that of Blur. Gorillaz gave Albarn the opportunity to pivot to other projects, ranging from the atmospheric art pop of the Good, the Bad & the Queen and the Flea collaboration Rocket Juice & the Moon to the nonprofit organization Africa Express or a series of stage musicals. All this activity kept Albarn from launching an official solo career until 2014, when he released Everyday Robots. There, Albarn made moodier, more introspective music than he did with either Blur or Gorillaz, and the same sentiment held true for his second solo album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, which arrived in 2021. Born in London on March 23, 1968, Damon Albarn is the son of Keith and Hazel Albarn; his father was an artist, his mother a theatrical set designer. Raised in an artistic household, Albarn took a shine to music at an early age, learning guitar, piano, and violin, then beginning to compose instrumental pieces. He also showed an interest in drama as he attended Stanway Comprehensive School. At Stanway, he met Graham Coxon, a guitarist who shared Albarn's fondness for the mod revival, new wave, and the Specials. After studying acting for a year at East 15 Acting School, Albarn formed a synth pop duo named Two's a Crowd, then cycled through a few other groups before attending Goldsmiths College in 1988. At Goldsmiths, Albarn reconnected with Coxon and started a band called Circus, which also featured drummer Dave Rowntree. Bassist Alex James soon joined the trio, and when he did, they changed their name to Seymour. The band signed to Food Records in 1990, then once again changed their name, this time landing on Blur. Blur operated on the periphery of shoegaze, co-opting some of that loud, atmospheric pulse for their debut single, "She's So High." Their second single, "There's No Other Way," was brighter, echoing some of the indie dance coming out of Manchester at the time, and it gave them a genuine hit in the spring of 1991. Leisure, their debut, didn't build upon its momentum, a disappointment compounded by Blur supporting the album to a disinterested America in 1992. Jaded by the experience and bristling at the grunge that had overtaken the U.S. and elsewhere, Albarn wrote a set of defiantly British songs in response. The resulting Modern Life Is Rubbish appeared in 1993 to some acclaim and respectable sales; it was an album that set the stage for what came next. Released in the spring of 1994, Parklife found Blur delivering a brighter, hookier version of the British pop of Modern Life Is Rubbish, yet it also broke away from that album's guitar-focused indie rock. That much was evident by the bouncing disco beat of "Girls & Boys," the single that gave Blur a genuine hit and helped usher in the Britpop era in U.K. rock. Blur were surrounded by such fellow travelers as Pulp and Elastica -- Albarn was romantically aligned with Elastica's Justine Frischmann during this period -- and found rivals in Oasis, a Beatles-besotted hard rock band from Manchester. The arty Londoners of Blur made natural rivals for the Mancunian working-class guitar band, and their feud leapt from the music newsweeklies into the mainstream press when both groups delivered new singles on the same day in August 1995. Blur's "Country House" wound up taking the top slot, but their album The Great Escape was overshadowed by the phenomenal success of Oasis' What's the Story (Morning Glory)? Disillusioned with the tabloid hysteria and fashionable scene surrounding Britpop, Blur retreated to the noisier environs of American indie rock, channeling this new obsession on their eponymous 1997 album. Blur gave Blur their biggest American hit with the grunge satire "Song 2," and the album also was a success in Britain and elsewhere, so the band continued in this direction for 1999's downhearted 13. During the late '90s, Albarn lived with Jamie Hewlett, the comic artist responsible for Tank Girl. While watching MTV, the pair came up with the notion of making a cartoon band: Hewlett would be responsible for the visuals, Albarn the music. The resulting Gorillaz afforded Albarn the opportunity to collaborate with a rotating list of rockers and rappers, plus the tone of the project initially was lighter than the music Blur was making at the dawn of the 2000s. Gorillaz's self-titled debut became an international success upon its 2001 release thanks to the hit singles "Clint Eastwood" and "19-2000." In the wake of its success, Albarn returned to Blur, but the sessions for the 13 follow-up were difficult. Graham Coxon left the band early in its recording, leaving Albarn to play the majority of guitar on Think Tank. The group split not long after its 2003 release. Prior to Think Tank, Albarn started exploring outside the confines of either Blur or Gorillaz. He released Mali Music in 2002, its blunt title reflecting the African music within. At the end of 2003, Albarn released a solo EP called Democrazy, all recorded during Blur's supporting tour for Think Tank. He next returned to Gorillaz, releasing Demon Days in 2005. Thanks to the singles "Feel Good Inc.," "Dirty Harry," and "Dare," the album was certified multi-platinum in both the U.K. and U.S., while also snagging five Grammy nominations. Albarn then launched the Good, the Bad & the Queen, a supergroup also featuring drummer Tony Allen, Paul Simonon of the Clash, and former Verve member Simon Tong. The band's eponymous debut arrived in January 2007. The following year, Albarn released Journey to the West, an album based on compositions he wrote for the musical Monkey: Journey to the West. Blur reunited to play two concerts in Hyde Park in 2009, a reunion that led to the new song "Fool's Day" in 2010. That same year, the band released No Distance Left to Run, a documentary chronicling their history, and Albarn also reconvened Gorillaz for the Plastic Beach album. During its North American supporting tour, Gorillaz wrote and recorded the songs that became The Fall, an album released at the end of 2010. Albarn spent the next few years away from his two main groups. He made Kinshasa One Two, a 2011 album made with DRC Music (Democratic Republic of the Congo Music), Richard Russell, and Dan the Automator; released on Warp, it was designed to showcase modern musicians in Congo. Albarn continued his collaboration with Allen on Rocket Juice & the Moon, a group that also featured Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their self-titled debut album arrived in 2012, which was a busy year for Albarn. That year, he released Dr. Dee, a collection of songs from the stage musical Dr Dee: An English Opera, which he wrote in collaboration with Rufus Norris; he produced Bobby Womack's The Bravest Man in the Universe; and Blur reunited to play a concert as part of the 2012 Summer Olympics, a performance at Hyde Park captured on the Parklive album. Africa Express, a combination charity and musical collaboration that Albarn unveiled in 2006, began releasing albums in 2013 with Maison des Jeunes, an set recorded with Brian Eno in 2013. They quickly followed it in 2014 with In C Mali, the first version of Terry Riley's In C recorded by an African group. Albarn released his first official solo album, Everyday Robots, in 2014. The low-key, introspective record reached number two on the U.K. charts and earned a nomination for Best Album in the Mercury Prize. Blur unexpectedly reunited in 2015 for Magic Whip, an album the group began in 2013 while stranded in Hong Kong for five days after a festival they were scheduled to headline was canceled. Coxon finished up the recordings in 2014, then Albarn added vocals to complete the album. Albarn returned to Gorillaz for Humanz in 2017, which was quickly followed by The Now Now in 2018. By the end of that year, Albarn reunited the Good, the Bad & the Queen for Merrie Land. Africa Express released Egoli, an album featuring contributions by Gruff Rhys and Nick Zinner, in 2019. During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Albarn busied himself with long-distance collaborations for Gorillaz, resulting in a series of singles that were later rounded up as 2020's Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez. The following year, Albarn completed The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, a solo album he created as an ode to his adopted country of Iceland. The Nearer the Fountain was released in November 2021, then he supported the album with a few solo concerts in early 2022.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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