Since his early days turning Neutral Milk Hotel dirges into trip-hop jams, Brian Burton has been interested in taking the talents of other songwriters and marrying those strengths with his unique gauzy, throwback aesthetic. This desire ultimately sent Burton to the upper echelon of the music industry under the moniker Danger Mouse. The rise began in earnest when he mashed up The Beatles and Jay-Z on The Grey Album, which caught the attention of many folks — including the label who controlled the Fab Four’s catalog.
Earlier this spring, he released a collaboration with Karen O called Lux Prima that earned universal acclaim, topping the Billboard Tastemaker chart in the US. The record is more than the sum of its parts as well, with Rolling Stone declaring that Danger Mouse and Karen O “unlocked a new creative force within each other” on Lux Prima.
This is just one in a long line of career-defining collaborations. So in honor of the latest partnership with Karen O, we’ve decided to look backward as well as forward. Here are seven important projects in Brian Burton’s discography, whether pushing another artist on their own records or subsuming his identity into a side project.
Before Blur frontman Damon Albarn released the self-titled Gorillaz debut, it wasn’t seen as an obvious winner. The “fake cartoon band” fusion project struck some as a little peculiar — and maybe not the good kind. But on the strength of international hit single Clint Eastwood, Gorillaz ended up a smashing success. With that much heat, Albarn could’ve chosen anyone to produce the follow-up. Instead of going with a proven hitmaker or industry heavy hitter, he chose a commercially-unproven producer whose most notable project involved a massive legal dispute.
Danger Mouse’s work with Gorillaz on their sophomore effort, Demon Days — which tallied over 5.3 million copies worldwide — eclipsed The Grey Album by an order of magnitude and catapulted him into another stratosphere. He shared writing credits on eight songs, five of which were released as singles. The biggest of those, the De La Soul collab Feel Good Inc., is still a regular on the radio over a decade later.
The experience wasn’t just good for Danger Mouse either, with Albarn saying he was “the best producer I’ve ever worked” when Demon Days was released.
Though it began before his work on Demon Days, Burton’s project with alt-rap icon MF Doom benefited greatly from the Gorillaz bump. The Mouse And The Mask is a high-concept record in a sense. Writing an album around samples from several Adult Swim shows and inviting a giant wad of cartoon meat to share the mic could be seen as a “high” concept on a few levels, after all. It showcased the perfect overlap of mid-aughts blog buzz, pop culture nerdery, and corporate-supported subterfuge to send the internet into a tailspin at the time.
In addition to its pre-social media virality (ah yes, the days before memes ruled our lives!), the album also presaged work to come from Danger Mouse, with contributions from Cee-lo Green and Mark Linkous on Benzi Box and The Mask, respectively.
While Cee-lo Green’s persona and career have become knotted in intermittent controversy in the ensuing years, Danger Mouse’s collaboration with Green has to be mentioned first. Gnarls Barkley was far from Burton’s first major collaborative effort, but it’s easily the cultural apex of his storied career. The duo’s debut, St. Elsewhere, simultaneously felt diffuse and pointed. Even though the specifics of subsequent projects varied, this DNA was always present.
The reason this record is the most notable on the today’s list is its psych-soul lead single, Crazy. In addition to being a straight banger, the wistful track is regarded as one of the most important songs of the century.
This may be the most creatively collaborative project of Danger Mouse’s career. After Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous — a rabid collaborator himself — heard The Grey Album, he became smitten. This led to a relationship between the two artists, who eventually worked together on a few songs for Linkous’ 2006 classic, Dreamt for Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain. The partnership advanced to another level entirely for 2010’s Dark Night Of The Soul.
The lauded LP featured appearances from Wayne Coyne, Iggy Pop, Frank Black, Julian Casablancas, and Vic Chesnutt, among other luminaries. Beyond just the songs, it also featured a numbered 100-plus-page book by David Lynch. Beyond the names attached, Dark Night Of The Soul generated even more buzz when EMI went back and forth on whether the album should even be released. What followed was a package that included a blank CD with the message “For legal reasons, enclosed CD-R contains no music. Use it as you will.”
Burton didn’t necessarily shy away from rock music during the first decade of his career, but 2010 marked a new era that cemented him as an in-demand “rock dude” for acts as diverse as U2, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Portugal. The Man, and Parquet Courts.
In addition to changing the trajectory of his career, DM also altered the trajectory of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney’s careers this year. With their first six records, Auerbach and Carney established The Black Keys as an indie rock workhorse. Every year or two, you’d get another album full of dependable Midwest-tinged fuzzy stomp blues. That changed when the pair joined up with Danger Mouse for three pivotal albums beginning in 2010.
Burton used his signature lo-fi sheen sound to polish The Black Keys in all the right spots while maintaining the grit of the first few LPs. Brothers peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Top 200, turning them into mid-sized festival headliners. By the time 2011’s El Camino went double platinum and 2014’s Turn Blue hit the top spot on the Billboard charts, they’d become one of the biggest bands around and a staple of alt-rock radio.
Alongside his work with the Keys, Broken Bells helped define Danger Mouse’s rock turn in the early teens. However, the seeds for it were sewn in the dark days of 2004. About a month before Shins frontman James Mercer changed Zach Braff’s life in Garden State, Mercer met Burton at a festival in Europe. After four years of talking and a guest appearance on Dark Night Of The Soul from Mercer, they started working together seriously around 2008. This eventually led to 2010’s self-titled debut.
That said, the key release here is 2014’s After The Disco, which honed the kitchen-sink approach of their debut to create an LP that marries Mercer’s winsome indie melodicism with Danger Mouse’s psych-soul affinity. More recently, Broken Bells released a single late last year title Shelter. No word on what that means for more new music, though.
As it happens, 2004 ended up being a big year for long-simmering collaborations for Danger Mouse. He doesn’t remember exactly how he met Karen O that year, but Burton was certain it happened while he was DJing with Iggy Pop at an event — because of course he was.
When word broke that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman and Danger Mouse were working together a few months back, it wasn’t particularly surprising. Karen O had become a serial collaborator over the years, and the partnership had the quirky-indie-darling-meets-Danger Mouse imprimatur that delivered Broken Bells and Dark Night Of The Soul.
That didn’t give us any indication of what it would sound like, though. The result, Lux Prima, can be summed up in one word: lush. The album situates itself across many times and places, sometimes simultaneously. All of this is seen expertly on the nine-minute title track that opens the record. It takes the listener on a journey through Beth Gibbons’ backyard, Norman Whitfield’s den, Serge Gainsbourg’s sex pad. Come to think of it, that’s probably any room Gainsbourg ever set foot in.
This article was produced in partnership with BMG.