There’s been a bit of a Radiohead theme here this week, and the talk of Thom Yorke’s solo projects got us thinking about how much better the band turned out to be than anyone could possibly have ever expected on the evidence of their debut album. The shift between Pablo Honey and The Bends is one of music’s greatest leaps forward, and the success of the latter represented vindication for a band who’d staked everything on determinedly not making anything that sounded like another “Creep.” There’s always an element of risk in such creative left turns, clearly – no one wants to end up looking like Style Council-era Paul Weller, or making an album as indescribably dreadful as Chris Cornell’s Scream – but when such reinventions come off well, they make for some of music’s most memorable moments. Here’s 12 of the best.
Pablo Honey (1993) to The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997)
Radiohead have had a couple of great creative shifts over the course of their career, and although the wholesale creative inhalation of Warp’s back catalogue that characterized the OK Computer to Kid A transition was the most musically dramatic, the greatest conceptual leap forward came between their debut, Pablo Honey, and the two albums that followed it. The shift is best exemplified by the fact that Pablo Honey’s “How Do You?” and OK Computer’s “Let Down” share pretty much exactly the same chord structure, but whereas the former’s probably the most dully conventional rocker the band ever recorded, the latter is a delicately forlorn declaration of existential terror. And way, way better.
Tom Waits made some decent records during the 1970s, but by the early ‘80s, his down-at-heel Bukowskian crooner incarnation was well into the land of diminishing returns. Heartattack and Vine was his last album for Asylum Records, and it was unclear where he’d go once the deal was over. One thing’s for sure: pretty much no one foresaw that he’d return in 1983 with an album that was characterized by incessant musical innovation and the fact that he was suddenly singing like he’d swallowed a razorblade. No one except, perhaps, for his new wife Kathleen Brennan, who he’d married in 1980 and who was to prove a lasting influence on his career.
Davis started to use electric piano and guitar toward the end of the ‘60s, and Miles in the Sky marked his first move toward the melange of jazz and rock’n’roll that would be called “fusion.” Even so, it didn’t hint at quite how radical Davis’ thinking had become. The first taste of that came with In a Silent Way, a classic in itself, which paved the way for Davis’ 1970 masterpiece Bitches Brew. Even in 2011, the roiling, disconcerting sounds contained therein remain unparalleled in their ability to thrill whilst simultaneously bringing on a belting headache.
The music from Frusciante’s heroin-drenched “dark period” certainly makes for difficult listening, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. Chafing at the constraints of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ music and the unwanted aspects of fame, Frusciante quit the band in 1992 and retreated to the Hollywood Hills to do pretty much nothing except paint, record music on a four-track, and shoot up lots and lots and lots of drugs. Apparently, Niandra LaDes was recorded before his addiction reached the ghastly depths of the mid-’90s, and it remains a strange, rambling, and occasionally wonderful piece of work. It sounds absolutely nothing like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and really nothing like anything else – and while the music Frusciante recorded later in period was nearly unlistenable (particularly Smile from the Streets You Hold), there was plenty to like on Niandra LaDes. Songs like “Been Insane” and “Curtains” could well have been pop songs in the hand of a man even remotely inclined to make such music, and even the 13 untitled songs that make up the second half of the album have their own strangely compelling beauty.
Nick Cave had recorded plenty of lovelorn crooners before 1997 – “The Ship Song,” “I Let Love In,” and even the Bad Seeds’ debut single, a cover of Elvis’s “In the Ghetto.” Still, an entire album of somber, piano-led ballads was a surprise, particularly when contrasted with the demented atmosphere of its predecessor, Murder Ballads. Boatman’s Call represented a new direction with which Cave would stick for several albums, finally breaking out of what was becoming a piano-ballad funk with the glorious 2004 double album Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus .
A five-year trajectory of light to dark, The Prodigy’s great creative shift mirrored the decline of acid house. Experience was an album of gurning raved-up anthems like “Charly”; The Fat of the Land was an album of pulverizing and occasionally downright scary electronic nightmares. Music for the Jilted Generation provided some sort of indication as to where the band were heading – the songs were darker, and Maxim Reality took the microphone for “Poison” – but even so, the impact of seeing “Firestarter” for the fist time was startling. The band’s transition was embodied by the transformation of Keith Flint, from the loved-up, long-haired, neo-hippie dancer of 1992 to the pierced, tattooed lunatic on vocals for “Firestarter.”
By the end of the ‘80s, even U2 were sick of U2. At the end of the interminable Rattle and Hum tour, the band promised to “dream it up again.” The result was a relocation to Berlin, a recording session that was by all accounts excruciating, and the best album they ever made.
World Class Wreckin’ Cru to NWA
If you’d looked at Andre Young in the late ‘80s, you’d never in a million years have picked that in a couple of years he’d be the producer behind the most controversial and intimidating hip hop crew of all time. In his first group World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Dre sported Spandex, smiled for the camera, and produced fairly uninteresting beats. In NWA, he smoked weed, scowled at the camera, and produced tracks that sounded like a large man repeatedly punching you in the head.
Sure, Bowie’s career is littered with musical reinventions, but this was probably the most radical of them all, given the unlikely circumstances in which it happened. By the mid-’70s, the singer had turned himself into a one-man Colombian vacuum cleaner and was living in L.A. with a large collection of Egyptian memorabilia and a world-class dose of paranoia. Young Americans was full of soul flavors and white-boy funk, and while Station to Station captures something of a transitional process, Low still represented a creative reinvention of the very best sort. Compare, say, Young Americans’ “Fame” to Low’s “Warszawa” or “Subterraneans” and marvel that this could possibly be the same artist.
Anyone who thinks drugs can’t occasionally catalyze some sort of creative epiphany should really put these two albums on back-to-back. On their self-titled second album, Primal Scream were stuck in a creative rut, churning out tired, punk-era cliches (the contained a song called “Gimme Gimme Teenage Head,” which should give some idea of how bad it was). Two years later, they’d embraced acid house culture, taken a shitload of ecstasy, and created the masterpiece that was Screamadelica. Result.
Sure, there were contractual complications involved here, but still, did anyone ever envisage that Andrew WK would follow up his third album of party-centric, four-to-the-floor stompers with an album of classical piano music?
The Beastie Boys
While Licensed to Ill had its bratty charm – particularly “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!),” which remains the most gloriously puerile party anthem ever – it was clear that the Beastie Boys’ career wasn’t going to have any longevity if all they could do was inspire high-school trouble-makers. Three years after Licensed to Ill, they returned with Paul’s Boutique, which was a huge leap forward in every respect. The frat-boy humor was replaced with genuine wit and sparkle, while the music painted from a far broader sonic palette than anyone could ever have expected.