First Listen: Gorillaz “Plastic Beach” floats on

"Plastic Beach" by Gorillaz, released March 8, 2010

Virtual band Gorillaz released its first album in five years Tuesday, just in time to transfix listeners before a headlining gig on the third day of Coachella in April.

“Plastic Beach”, the third studio album from co-creators Damian Albarn and Jamie Hewlett is equally exotic, interesting, refreshing and weird. And you can stream the whole thing right now on NPR.

And there’s a good chance that’s exactly the intentions of Albarn, the former Blur frontman, and Hewlett, the comic book artist known for creating “Tank Girl”.

The two created Gorillaz after getting sick of watching MTV somewhere around 1998 and created a cartoon band to comment on the “music” channel’s “lack of substance.”

The new album incorporates the usual electro-funk hip-hop goodness Gorillaz is known for. But this time around, there’s some special guest stars to make things extra juicy.

Most notably are appearances from Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, De La Soul, Little Dragon and even Lou Reed.

The concept stems from Albarn’s experiences at landfills in Western Africa and London – how he viewed the world in a new, optimistic way. He decided plastic was actually part of nature and not against it.

The recognizable and intentionally unemotional singing from fictional lead singer 2D (Albarn) that we all remember from Gorillaz debut hit “Clint Eastwood” doesn’t come in until the fourth track, “Rhinestone Eyes.”

Until we get there, we’re presented with an instrumental intro,  a laid-back Snoop Dogg welcome and a electronic-orchestral mashup featuring hip-hop stylings by British rappers Bashy and Kano.

But nothing really sticks until Albarn’s singing is laid over some synthesizer-laden beats in “Rhinestone”, which is where we should fine a surefire new Gorillaz hit. It’s got pop sensibilities and a funkiness that could only come from an amalgam of a band that probably started as a joke.

“Stylo”, “Some Kind of Nature” and “Plastic Beach” are also standouts.

The nice thing here is that Albarn and Hewlett are doing what they want with “Plastic Beach.”

It sounds a lot less mainstream than parts of 2005’s “Demon Days” (I think we’ve all heard “D.A.R.E” one too many times) and it’s unlikely to pervade pop culture as heavily. Though that doesn’t mean it won’t be popular. It will be.

“Plastic Beach” is a mixed bag of melancholy hip-hop and pop songs worth checking out. Don’t expect any Gnarls Barkley on this beach, but the album should shine enough to keep it hot through summer.

Also worth mentioning is that Gorillaz brought in more guests than even appear on this album. Expect some B-sides to include more collabs with De La Soul and Mos Def, as well as performances by British garage rock band The Horrors.

Oh and don’t forget to check out the interactive Plastic Beach Game if you’re looking to venture a little deeper down the rabbit hole.

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