Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Experimental Albums: The Good, The Bad & The Misunderstood

What with James Vincent McMorrow discovering a love of synth's on Post Tropical, Bombay Bicycle Club going all electro pop on us and Young Fathers creating one of the early standouts for album of the year with their blend of African tribal music and hip-hop, I'm taking a look back at the best and worst examples of album experiments. The following records either redefined their respective bands in outstanding fashion, ruined stellar reputations or maybe even provided their fans with a piece of work that nobody ever quite got the hang of.

In any case, you can be sure they were interesting. Here are the most daring, illogical and definitely surprising albums in modern music:

The Good

Radiohead- Kid A

Perhaps the ultimate example of a band redesigning and rediscovering themselves, Kid A is the most glorious and triumphant experiment of the 21st century, and one that has influenced countless artists and will continue to for an age. Coming off the back of OK Computer's astonishing critical and commercial success in 1997, band leader Thom Yorke found himself going haywire at the perceived expectation he felt to repeat such a landmark record.

His answer? To craft an album that comprised elements of countless underground, long forgotten and somewhat unthinkable genres of music, resulting in an electronic masterpiece that subsequently caused the music world to pause for deep thought.

The Velvet Underground- White Light, White Heat

The Velvet Underground pretty much created experimental rock music in the 1960's, and their 1968 magnum opus White Light/White Heat defined the experimental album while giving birth to new genres of music through its exploration, most notably punk rock. You can't talk about experimental albums without the first and greatest of them all.

''The Gift'' mashes together an instrumental hard rock jam and a short story about Waldo Jeffers, a young man who tragically mails himself to his long distance girlfriend, while at over 17 minutes long, ''Sister Ray'' deals with  ''a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear'', in the words of Lou Reed himself. ''I Heard Her Call My Name'' was declared to be the most conventional song on the record... If you've heard it, that statement speaks for itself.

Bob Dylan- Bringing It All Back Home

It may not sound it now, but Bringing It All Back Home was a hugely controversial move for Bob Dylan upon its release in 1965. Confirming Dylan's new found love of electric rock and roll as he was backed by a full band on the first half of the record, fans of the folk legend despaired and protested at this new found love of a heavier sound which would go on to produce some of the greatest albums of the iconic songwriters career. Bringing It All Back Home can comfortably count itself among Dylan's finest works, showcasing a rapid evolution that to this day stands among rock's greatest albums.

Nirvana- In Utero

Arguably this was not an experimental album at all, but the almost metal sound of In Utero was a very purposeful test set out by Kurt Cobain in 1994, designed to scare away fans of Nirvana's seminal pop punk album Nevermind. The breakneck recording of In Utero and its resulting raw production was controversial, and the album was very reluctantly released by Geffen Records following major disputes with the band, having deemed the sound of the album ''unlistenable''. In actual fact this was Nirvana at their most honest and expressive, and In Utero has since been declared one of the finest rock albums ever by several publications for it's definitive picture of Nirvana and their iconic presence, before it was tragically cut short in its prime.

The Bad

Oasis- Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants was, in many ways, the ugly sister to Kid A. Released in the same year, it saw Oasis attempt to explore new territory rather than bash out another Defintely Maybe or Morning Glory, but in spite of their commendable bravery to not bow to expectations, the band's fourth album simply proved that they most definitely should have stuck to their meat and potatoes guitar rock approach. Clumsily employing synths, drum loops and samples throughout its underwhelming 47 minutes, Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants could be seen as one of the first nails in Oasis' coffin, as they struggled to regain their early momentum after the lukewarm critical reception and poor sales of the unfortunate album.

Lou Reed- Metal Machine Music

There's a place for Lou Reed on both sides of this list as many would expect with the recently deceased New Yorker's penchant for experimentation and innovation, both great and terrible. In 1975, Reed dropped a serious case of the later in Metal Machine Music, an album consisting mainly of guitar feedback and other various unappealing noises. The record puzzled fans, who nowadays see the release as a possible joke or the result of a contract obligation that Reed wanted to end on poor terms. Recently, it has received some praise and been cited as a innovative noise album, but if you're asking me, this is simply an experiment gone horribly wrong; 64 minutes of what can barely be described as music.

Chris Cornell- Scream

Chris Cornell and Timbaland sounded like a woeful idea from the offing, but when considered in retrospect it is perhaps surprising that the duo mad such a dog's dinner of this project. Cornell's distinctive vocals are not unsuited to pop/r'n'b music and who better to go to for a producer in this industry than Timbaland with his proven track record of pop hits, but this big budget disaster was simply devoid of any meaning or real direction, instead proving a miscalculated, polished excrement.

Lil Wayne- Rebirth

Many would omit Lil Wayne from this list on the basis that he's always been terrible, but that would be an unfair judgement of a man who has managed to surpass Elvis Presley in terms of hit singles on the Billboard chart, all the while garnering acclaim for releases like Tha Carter III. But Lil Wayne and electric guitars, just like Cornell and hip-hop beats, sounded like a total mess from the beginning. The rapper's 7th album was an attempt to make rock music and featured Wayne on guitar while singing in auto tuned vocals that most certainly did not compliment the already questionable production.

The Misunderstood

Kanye West- 808's & Heartbreak

Kanye's 4th and most polarizing album came at a bad time for the egotistical rapper; he had just upset the entire world by interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the VMA's and been declared a ''jackass'' by Barack Obama himself, and the negative energy that accompanied the hip-hop superstar followed through with a mixed critical reception to the release of 808's & Heartbreak in 2008. Feeding on the crushing personal losses that had dominated his life during recording, 808's saw Ye embrace auto tuned vocals and take a break from the straight up rap style of his original three records, which alienated fans, but the album has proven to be a significant release in recent years, directly influencing major stars like Drake, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, while West has gone on to drop his most acclaimed and definitive work since.

Intimacy- Bloc Party

The underwhelming response to Bloc party's venture in electronic territory in 2008 was unfair to the band in my mind, as Kele Okerere and company dropped their guitars in order to create a synth heavy concept album about relationships, that drew from the lead singer's personal life troubles. A worthy follow up to two of the decades most acclaimed indie albums, Intimacy was bold and daring in its drastic change of tone, while also lethal in its execution, providing some of the bands best work in songs like the majestic ''Ion Square'', ''Talons'', ''Biko'' and bonus track and single ''Flux'', but its mixed appraisal seemed to damage the band, who went on hiatus afterwards and returned with the indifferent Four in 2012.

Digital Ash In A Digital Urn- Bright Eyes

Conor Oberst peaked in 2005 with the double release of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, with many commentators declaring him the new Bob Dylan for the intimate, politically conscious folk of the former, but it seemed that the majority of these reviews ignored or dismissed its electronic counterpart, Digital Ash, with its soothing ambient textures and soft electronica. Oberst's poetry was at its finest on both of these albums, and tales of lost love, alcoholism and dark depression were at their most affecting and inspiring over these emotive electro backgrounds, making Digital Ash an album that deserves to be revisited and reevaluated.

Zaireeka- The Flaming Lips

The mind boggling design of Flaming Lip's 8th studio album was a huge problem for many listeners at the time. Consisting of 8 songs recorded on four separate stereo tracks, the album was structured so that when played on 4 different audio systems, it would harmonize together. The album had a glowing endorsement for every outraged detractor, being awarded both a 10/10 rating by NME and 0/10 by Pitchfork. Personally, I still think there's way too much effort involved to care.

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