By the time Plastic Beach came out in early March 2010, British “virtual band” Gorillaz were already a huge part of the new millennium’s pop culture zeitgeist. After all, musical mastermind Damon Albarn (of Blur) and visual artist Jamie Hewlett had, with the help of many collaborators, fashioned two wildly celebrated and chameleonic LPs — 2001’s Gorillaz and 2005’s Demon Days — that blended traces of alternative rock, ambient, orchestral, trip hop, and dark pop into a delightfully characteristic sound. Beyond that, and perhaps just as importantly, they created a quartet of cartoon avatars — guitarist/keyboardist Noodle, bassist Murdoc, drummer Russel, and vocalist 2-D — whose vividly eccentric and disparate backstories, personalities, and behaviors added plenty of hip mythos and spectacle to the multimedia experience.
It’s no wonder, then, that their third studio outing arrived with such high expectations (almost all of which it either challenged or exceeded). More lighthearted, vivacious, unified, and striving than its predecessors, Plastic Beach is the adequately familiar yet considerably atypical antithesis of what Gorillaz had been doing beforehand and where they’d go afterward (via the dissonant lo-fi minimalism of 2011’s The Fall and the glitzy party vibes of 2017’s Humanz and 2018’s The Now Now). It’s a charmingly colorful, dense, wide-ranging, and absorbing odyssey that always warrants a return stay, especially on the 10th anniversary of its initial trip.
In an April 2010 interview with Wired, Albarn explained that the titular Plastic Beach is actually “the new Gorillaz ‘base’ at Point Nemo [the most remote island on earth] .. a plastic detritus in the Pacific Ocean.” In reality, Plastic Beach was self-produced and recorded between June 2008 and November 2009 in several studios across the world (including ones in England, California, Hong Kong, New York, Syria, and Nigeria). Fascinatingly, it grew out of two other ventures that the pair were conceiving, Monkey: Journey to the West and then Carousel, which Hewlett likened to the film adaptations of The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia. It was going to focus on mysticism in Britain and be presented as “many stories, told around a bigger story, set to music, and done in live action, animation, [and] all different styles.” For various reasons, that plan didn’t pan out, so they changed course toward Plastic Beach.
Reportedly, Albarn was inspired by all of the plastic he saw on the beach around his house, but he knew that listeners would probably not respond well to an overtly environmentalist message. Therefore, he also aimed to make Plastic Beach “one the most pop records” he’s ever done — “capturing [listeners’] imagination” and exuding “fun” from start to finish — but with enough “depth” and “environmental thoughts scattered and peppered around every bit of [it].” On Hewlett’s end, he wanted to bring a bit more wisdom and maturity to the animated quartet’s ethos and surroundings.
Cumulatively, Gorillaz and Demon Days featured many impressive guests, including Del the Funky Homosapien, Ibrahim Ferrer, Miho Hatori, Dennis Hopper, De La Soul, Ike Turner, MF DOOM, and Neneh Cherry. However, Plastic Beach likely boasts the greatest assemblage of collaborators yet, with Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith, Snoop Dogg, Mick Jones, Mos Def, Little Dragon, Paul Simonon, and even Welsh singer-songwriter Gruff Rhys making appearances. That last addition is especially fitting considering how Plastic Beach often sounds like what would happen if Rhys’ main group, Super Furry Animals, dipped their toes further into symphonic hip-hop tapestries.
Deservedly, Plastic Beach was met with a lot of commercial and critical success, including debuting at the No. 2 spots on both the UK Albums Chart and the Billboard 200. As for press reviews, there were a few negative takes (from magazines such as Mojo and Entertainment Weekly); still, many publications —The A.V. Club, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The Independent, and Q among them — praised it. PopMatters’ Michael Kabran hit the nail on the head when he declared that Gorillaz’s “trademark brand of electro-funk-hip-pop is more focused [here], with tighter production and more sure-fire hooks.” Unsurprisingly, it appeared on several “Best of 2010” end-of-the-year lists (including our own), and if not for Demon Days, it’d currently be tied with Humanz as the highest-ranking Gorillaz album on Metacritic.
Of course, all of that would mean very little if Plastic Beach didn’t hold up; happily, though, it retains every ounce of its sunny and life-affirming escapism. Although Gorillaz and Demon Days had some cheery moments and flamboyant textures (“Clint Eastwood”, “Feel Good Inc.”, “Re-Hash”, “DARE”, “Rock the House”) to suit the group’s cartoonish presentation, they also presented glimpses into dissonant and/or sparse urban nightmares (“Kids with Guns”, “All Alone”, “Tomorrow Comes Today”, “El Mañana”, and “Punk”). Not so with Plastic Beach, which is essentially a dreamily surreal and weightless genre-splicing adventure the whole way through.
One of the biggest luxuries of the LP is its use of orchestration and ambience, both of which are featured more positively and prominently than ever before. In fact, the band mesmerizes with pleasantly luscious strings, horns, and the like right away via the one-two punch of “Orchestral Intro” and the Snoop Dog-led “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” (which also incorporates some disco and electronica for good measure). Later, the starry “Empire Ants” and the introspectively sparse “Cloud of Unknowing” stand out in the same ways, with plenty of other tunes incorporating vibrantly varied and ambitious coatings as well.
The songwriting and stylistic experimentations of Plastic Beach are also wonderful. For instance, the beats and synths of “On Melancholy Hill”, “Some Kind of Nature”, and “Broken” make them powerfully hummable and encouraging despite their morose melodies. In contrast, “White Flag” and “Sweepstakes” are abrasively fun treks into tropical rap; “Stylo” is peak electro-funk; “Glitter Freeze” is a mostly instrumental slice of digital punk; “To Binge” is a pensive and subdued cinematic treat; and both “Rhinestone Eyes” and “Superfast Jellyfish” are among the most infectiously catchy, bright, and happy-go-lucky tunes Gorillaz ever crafted. Really, every song offers something special, daring, and fresh while also feeling perfectly at home marooned with its brethren.
Plastic Beach isn’t definitively Gorillaz’s strongest album — none of the material equals the irresistibility of the aforementioned “Clint Eastwood” or “Feel Good Inc.” — but it’s arguably their most brave, cohesive, accessible, and replayable. Naturally, some of its precursors’ trademark attitude and aesthetic are still here, but for the most part, Albarn, Hewlett, and company pushed themselves toward even wider, fuller, and more polarized sonic palettes. In that way, Plastic Beach basically channels every major musical movement of the last 50 years into Gorillaz’ tried-and-true persona, yielding a timeless hodgepodge of colorfully eclectic splendor you want to visit time and time again.