Former LA Times pop critic Ann Powers came storming out of the gate yesterday with the first post for her new gig at NPR Music. Titled “It’s the Summer of Selling Out, and It Feels Fine,” her piece uses last weekend’s Coachella festival and the current crop of American Idol frontrunners to argue that 2011 is shaping up to be a good year “for all kinds of fans who like their music to feel free while it still aims for the center of the culture’s attention.” Part of Powers’s point is that “selling out” and making great music don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Although we have immense respect for the underground, we think Powers makes an important point. The tale of a talented but naïve band signing their lives away to a major label and then collapsing under the pressure to sell product is a common narrative, but it’s also far from the only outcome. After the jump, we list ten bands that ditched the indies for the majors, licensed their music to commercials, and went pop — and were better off for it, artistically.
Although mixing styles is the norm in the 21st century, in the ’70s you were supposed to pick your genre of choice and stick to it. Teenage dirtbags the world over could be divided into two camps: those who dreamt of partying the night away at Studio 54 and those who adopted “Disco sucks!” as their rallying cry. So it was a big deal when CBGB regulars and underground sensations Blondie recorded a disco track and released it on their third album, Parallel Lines . Partially inspired by the Bee Gees, the song was a major pop hit and rocketed the band to multi-platinum success. Other groundbreaking genre crossovers followed, from the rap-embellished “Rapture” to the reggae-flavored “The Tide Is High.” And you know what? While we’ll always love Blondie’s early stuff, Parallel Lines is by far the band’s best album.
Indie rock fans were in for a jolting surprise when, in the summer of 2006, Outback Steakhouse premiered a commercial that re-wrote the lyrics to of Montreal’s “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)” so that the song urged viewers, “Let’s go Outback tonight/ Life will still be here tomorrow.” The backlash became so unbearable that the band had to temporarily stop playing the tune — which, in case you’re not already familiar, makes reference to bacchanals, Tristan and Isolde, and all manner of other historical decadence — at concerts. But the joke was on fans who labeled of Montreal sellouts: Kevin Barnes and co. returned the next year with Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? , an uncompromisingly dark, experimental album that remains the highlight of their career. Eventually, Barnes wrote an essay for Stereogum arguing that “selling out is not possible. Selling out, in an artistic sense, is to change one’s creative output to fit in with the commercial world. To create phony and insincere art in the hopes of becoming commercially successful. I’ve never done this and I can’t imagine I ever will.” And you know what? Judging by his recent weird and wonderful output, we’re buying it.
Nirvana only made three studio albums, but each one was better than the last — and, although it also eventually led to Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide, commercial success had a lot to do with it. Their debut, Bleach , was a raw, snarling, and energetic lo-fi punk album recorded for about $600 and released by Sub Pop. Nevermind , Nirvana’s first record with major label DGC, showcased Cobain’s songwriting and served as the band’s mainstream manifesto. It was the staggering success of that release that gave Nirvana creative control over their final album, In Utero . Recorded with the help of Steve Albini and featuring Cobain’s most tortured and beautiful songs to date, it managed to maintain Nirvana’s appealing melodies without burying the frayed nerves and noise that gave the band its power.
One of the first ’80s art-rock bands to sign a major-label contract, label mates Sonic Youth were the ones who inspired Nirvana to leave the underground for DGC. Although many romanticize early albums like Bad Moon Rising and Confusion Is Sex — and don’t get us wrong, we love them, too — SY’s strongest albums came after they left micro-labels like Neutral and Homestead. Their first step on the road to wider exposure was the move to a bigger indie, SST, where they put out two classics: Evol and Sister . In 1988, they released what many believe to be their best album, Daydream Nation , on a Capitol-distributed label called Enigma. Seeking even wider exposure, Sonic Youth used the cultural caché they’d built up over the years as leverage to swing a deal with DGC that gave them unprecedented creative control. Another great record, Goo , followed in 1990, and SY stayed with Geffen until 2008, when their dissatisfaction with the label brought them to indie stalwart Matador.
Hipster audiences are notorious for wanting to keep their favorite bands a secret, away from the suburban teenagers and Wall Street bros who are sure turn a great, little show into a massively uncool clusterfuck. But some musicians are best off in the spotlight, to inspire those mall punks and challenge those finance guys. Gossip’s Beth Ditto is one of those musicians. We first fell in love with the band after the release of their 2001 Kill Rock Stars debut, That’s Not What I Heard . When we saw them live, we knew Ditto was unstoppable — as a singer, performer, and voice for the marginalized (fat people, queer people, etc.). On their past few albums, Gossip have upped the dance beats, and 2009’s Music for Men came out on a Sony subsidiary, with production by Rick Rubin. Ditto and her band are just as radical and compelling as ever — they’re just reaching a whole lot more fans these days.
The White Stripes
The White Stripes made three strong albums before signing to a major label, slowly building both credibility and buzz. It was their last full-length on Sympathy for the Record Industry, White Blood Cells , that rocketed them to mainstream radio success. When we learned that they’d signed to V2, we worried — but Jack and Meg White’s next record, Elephant , was even stronger, bolstered by the higher production values their lucrative contract afforded. We even enjoyed 2005’s strange, slightly experimental Get Behind Me, Satan . And as for Icky Thump , well, by the time that dropped, it was kind of too late to blame its failure on the duo’s jump to a major.
We won’t pretend we didn’t love “Loser.” But, at the time, we were pretty sure it was a novelty and Beck was heading for the one-hit-wonder bargain bin. Alas, the single originally released on Bong Load Custom Records scored Beck a deal with Geffen, and “Loser” soon found its home on Mellow Gold . Neither that record nor his K Records album One Foot in the Grave (which came out only a few months after Mellow Gold) could prepare us for Odelay . Recorded for Geffen with the help of the Dust Brothers, it featured fun and catchy songs that nonetheless spanned genres, took risks, and showcased the kind of weird flourishes that have become Beck’s signature.
People used to evangelize about the Decemberists. Smart, literary, and often downright nerdy, their indie-pop songs created fascinating characters and weren’t afraid to make you run for the thesaurus. After one lovely album on Hush, followed by two revelatory ones on Kill Rock Stars, we fretted that their first Capitol release, The Crane Wife , would be an unsuccessful attempt to make an essentially niche band mainstream. Instead, it was a polished geek-fest partially inspired by a Chinese folk tale and perhaps the Decemberists’ strongest release to date — making it highly unlikely that we can blame Capitol for the overworked mess that was its follow up, The Hazards of Love .
Unlike most of the bands on this list, Radiohead didn’t spend years in the indie world building up an audience. Their first album, 1992’s Pablo Honey , was a somewhat bland document of trendy, early-’90s ennui and self-loathing, released by EMI. Their breakout hit, “Creep,” like “Loser,” seemed like it might be a grunge-era novelty. But then Radiohead did something completely unexpected: They became the world’s best rock band. From The Bends to OK Computer to Kid A and Amnesiac , Thom Yorke and his band mates upped the artistic ante with every new album. First, they honed their songwriting. Then, they found a compelling and unifying concept. Then, they challenged everyone’s assumptions about what a platinum-selling rock act should be. In recent years, Radiohead have even broken free of the major-label system, self-distributing albums online and entrusting the independent XL with physical releases.
Sure, the whole The Who Sell Out concept was entirely tongue-in-cheek. But it did bring the British band’s first major US hit, “I Can See for Miles.” And while “My Generation” came before it, here’s what came immediately after: Tommy , Who’s Next , Quadrophenia .