Sometimes, our favorite artists put out an album that is so wildly different from what we've come to expect from them that they leave us wondering, "what the hell were they were thinking?" But then, if we let the album sit with us for a while, we might grow to love it more than anything they've ever done.
When musicians break out of their comfort zones and experiment with their sound, it can often result in some of the most influential recordings ever released. Surely, a lot of today's most prominent artists would not exist without having been inspired by pieces of music that, at the time, were considered to be controversial and unexpected. There are countless examples of these sudden changes in direction, but for the sake of pointing out some of the most significant ones, here's a brief list of five musical experiments that yielded incredible results.
1. David Bowie
was the king of changing personas at the drop of a hat, but his biggest change in direction was surely the album Low
. As the first album in the "Berlin Trilogy," with the other two being Heroes
saw Bowie heading in a more avant-garde direction. It was one of his first collaborations with Brian Eno, an artist that attracted Bowie at the time through his minimalist recording style and ambient soundscapes. Bowie also developed an interest in the German music scene, and fell in love with bands like Kraftwerk and Neu!. After finally meeting with Eno, the two worked together with producer Tony Visconti to produce an album composed of electronic fragments and otherworldly compositions. It was Bowie's first experiment with electronic and ambient music, and he used the opportunity to write some of his most personal songs ever (he was still struggling with addiction, at the time).
influenced so many notable artists, including Nine Inch Nails
, and it's undeniably one of Bowie's greatest albums.
2. Tom Waits
At the time of Tom Waits's debut, who would have thought that he'd go from this:
...to this, ten years later:
He literally went from romantically singing the line "falling in love just makes me blue" to shouting the threat "I'm gonna whittle you into kindlin'" in a throaty, cigarette-damaged voice. All you have to do is listen to Closing Time
back-to-back to fully understand the drastic change Tom Waits made in his songwriting. Over time, his voice devolved into a hellish growl, he began using experimental instrumentation, and his songwriting became abstract to say the least. This is how Tom Waits is remembered now, and his style hasn't changed since:
Because of this change in direction, Waits recorded albums like Swordfishtrombones
, Rain Dogs
, Bone Machine
, and Mule Variations
, which are regarded by many as some of the greatest albums of all time.
After the massive success of OK Computer
, everyone expected more fantastic guitar songs from Radiohead
's next album. But then, Kid A
came out. The band just had to complicate things, didn't they?
Suddenly, Radiohead was recording bizarre electronic soundscapes, with almost all of them featuring lyrics written like nonsensical Dada poetry (Thom Yorke famously wrote the lyrics to most of the songs on Kid A
by cutting up phrases and assembling them at random). It was a total head-scratcher back in 2000, but now stands as one of the band's greatest albums, and one of the most influential in recent memory. Kid A
left permanent effects on Radiohead's sound, and the band never quite got away from what the album did to them creatively (not that they would ever want to).
4. Miles Davis
Speaking of total head-scratchers, I can only imagine what it was like to be a jazz purist in 1970, when Miles Davis' Bitches Brew
was released. Davis had already been experimenting with his sound by this time, most notably with the acclaimed In a Silent Way,
however, Bitches Brew
was on a whole new level. On this heavily rock-influenced album, Davis chose to give the rhythm section an absurd change. The record, from track-to-track, features two bassists, two or three electric piano players, and two or three drummers playing simultaneously. Davis's own playing is spectacularly insane. His trumpet often sounds like it's shrieking. It's absolute madness, and one of the greatest jazz recordings of all time. Bitches Brew
has influenced countless musicians, across a wide variety of genres.
5. Bob Dylan
Since the 1960s, everybody's spoken about Bob Dylan
"going electric" to the point of total exhaustion. You're probably sick of hearing about it, at this point. However, it was still one of the most important artistic changes in music history. A lot of the new music you love today would not exist had Dylan not done something so simple as picking up an electric guitar, so it has to be mentioned.
When Bob Dylan released Bringing it All Back Home
, and the first side of the record featured him backed by an electric band, it caused an uproar. Folk purists came out of the woodwork and expressed their frustration with Dylan, most notably during his set at the Newport Folk Festival. Dylan and his band were booed, until he came out with the typical acoustic guitar/harmonica setup and played "Mr. Tambourine Man," which was received with thunderous applause. There are conflicting stories about why this happened, with some saying it was simply because of poor sound quality. However, others, Dylan included, think it had to do with folk fans being enraged at Dylan playing an electric guitar.
Switching from an acoustic guitar to an electric guitar seems like a minor alteration to us in the present day, but only because Dylan did it in 1965. Just think of all the artists that would have never been influenced by "Like A Rolling Stone" had Dylan not made the change.