Album: Gorillaz, Plastic Beach (EMI)

The virtual band finally show real musical prowess
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The Independent Culture

When the Gorillaz project was first unveiled in 2001, it was the pop equivalent of a Hoxton fin haircut: an over-stylised, self-consciously zeitgeisty irritant.

Their claim to be the first-ever virtual band (as if The Archies or Josie and the Pussycats never existed) was indulged all too eagerly by the media, who played along with Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett and Danger Mouse's stunt with depressing sycophancy, while the actual music was something of a redundant sideshow.

In 2010, they're still at it with the tiresome "Gorillaz are a separate entity guv, honest" business: in next week's NME, Damon Albarn "interviews" Murdoc, for pity's sake. With Plastic Beach, though, they've finally delivered something that's more than just a wacky virtual wheeze.

The collaborative nature of the project means it inevitably misfires occasionally. "Sweepstakes", featuring Mos Def, is a bit of a gnarly mess. "Some Kind of Nature", with Lou Reed, sounds like star-fucking wish-fulfilment, while on "White Flag", Kano and Bashy appear to be rapping over bad retro video game bleeps and an infant school recorder lesson. Albarn's own contributions are hit and miss: the dub-ska of "Rhinestone Eyes" could be a Good, The Bad And The Queen reject.

But the good stuff is, well, really good. "Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach", featuring Snoop Dogg, could be a prime-time Dre production. "Superfast Jellyfish" unites Gruff Rhys and De La Soul to create a new hybrid genre, Daffodil Age. The title track, starring The Clash's Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, moves from a Glasvegas-meets-Morricone shimmer into squeak-funk. "Glitter Freeze" has Mark E Smith snarling over Glitter Band drums and Rah Band synths; a well-mined seam in recent years, but they make it sound fresh. "Electric Shock" emulates horror movie incidental music to nightmarish effect.

Most astonishing is "Stylo", which superimposes soul legend Bobby Womack over sumptuous future-pop: think "Across 110th Street" meets "Trans Europe Express". Plastic Beach is a record that stands up on its own merits, regardless of graphic gimmicks. Throw the cartoons on the landfill and just listen.