Even matching the party vibe of the first album’s pan-cultural playground would have been an accomplishment. But, by bringing aboard mash-up master DJ Danger Mouse for Demon Days (Virgin), Albarn one-upped himself. The cast of cameo characters is every bit as diverse: De La Soul, Roots Manuva, Martina Topley-Bird, Happy Monday frontman Shaun Ryder, and even Dennis Hopper. But the real key to Gorillaz’ success is the ease with which Albarn and company resurrect electronica stripped of its rave baggage, ready for prime-time play as universal pop music, devoid of cultural and geographic boundaries. Albarn has placed himself at the forefront of a trend that erases borders between cultures and countries, styles and styluses, new waves and old schools. Electronica may not have exploded in the US as it did in the UK, but 10 years later DJs are celebrities in America as well as the rest of the world, neo–new wave has embraced the cut-and-paste aesthetic of the remix, and dance grooves cut across every segment of the pop world, from the Clap Your Hands indie underground to mainstream American idols.
It’s interesting that, at the same time, almost as a reaction against the cartoon characters Gorillaz hide behind, indie rock has shed irony in favor of the earnest singer-songwriter, typified by Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. That Plans, the willfully drab Seattle foursome’s major-label debut on Atlantic, beat out the likes of the White Stripes, Gorillaz, and even hip-hop superstar Kanye West for Best Album is no surprise. It’s worth noting that Gibbard himself has toyed with electronica in his other band, the Postal Service. And, since Plans seemed like a bit of a letdown after the more majestic Transatlanticism, I’m inclined to believe that Death Cab’s triumph is more the result of a cumulative groundswell of appreciation than a genuine, all-consuming belief that Plans is a great album.
Then again, Gibbard didn’t even come close to challenging Beck in a category he seemed well-suited to win: Best Male Vocalist. But, this was the year that Beck returned to his corner of the very same pan-cultural playground Gorillaz call home, not just with the Dust Brothers–produced Guero (Interscope), which took Beck on a tour of the multilingual LA he’s always been a part of, but with Guerolito, an album of remixes by Diplo, E-Pro, and other rising stars in the DJ underworld.
This could have been an even bigger year for Beck if not for the strange emergence of a hardcore Hasidic hip-hopped reggae dude named Matisyahu. Cultural clash? You betcha. It’s almost impossible to account for Matisyahu’s unprecedented success because his popularity can’t be chalked up to mere novelty, at least not anymore. We may just be dealing with a song, “King Without a Crown,” that’s as catchy as it pretends to be regardless of what the guy’s singing about. So, we’ll have to wait and see what happens next year before we know whether Matisyahu’s just an out-of-the-blue one-hit wonder or not. There’s no question that his hit earned him the divine right to be our Breakthrough Act of the year.