10 of the Most Wonderfully Versatile Contemporary Musicians

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As you’ll no doubt have gathered from our Geoff Barrow interview earlier today, the Portishead producer has a new record out this week. After a decade of near-silence, Barrow’s suddenly become hugely prolific over the last five years or so, and he’s also proven pleasantly versatile. With another similarly multi-talented musical polymath also releasing a record this week — Damon Albarn, whose soundtrack album for opera Dr Dee dropped on Monday — we thought we’d have a look at some of our other favorite similarly versatile composers (not, we hasten to add, classical composers, an area in which we don’t pretend to have any sort of knowledge).

Damon Albarn

Blur. Gorillaz. Malian music. A quick jaunt to the Congo to make a record with local musicians. A stage musical based around the Chinese legend of the monkey spirit’s journey to India to bring sacred Buddhist scriptures back to the East. More Blur. A project with Flea and Tony Allen. And now an opera. Damon Albarn’s output over the last decade or so has been nothing if not eclectic, but crucially, it’s never felt willfully so — it’s more that Albarn’s musical tastes have expanded and diversified as he’s gotten older, just like the rest of us.

Geoff Barrow

The signature sound of Geoff Barrow’s early work with Portishead — slowed-down hip hop beats, torch song vocals, film sample, overwhelming melancholy — got so overexposed during the 1990s that the man himself had something of an existential crisis, retreating to Australia and fearing that he may never recapture the magic. Happily, he eventually fell back in love with music, and the result has been a purple patch that’s lasted since Third was released in 2008. Since then, he’s formed neo-Kraut trio Beak>, produced The Horrors’ Primary Colours as well as several releases on his own label, made a hip hop album, done the soundtrack for the Banksy biopic, and made an album inspired by Judge Dredd. Not a bad few years of work, eh?

Jaz Coleman

True story: We once played guitar for Coleman at a party many years ago, which means we almost certainly hold the title of the least accomplished of the many remarkable musicians with whom the great man has worked. Over the years, he’s done everything from living as composer-in-residence with the Czech Symphony Orchestra to collaborating with “punk” classical violinist Nigel Kennedy to retreating to a cave in Iceland to compose symphonies in preparation for the apocalypse. And then, of course, there’s his work with Killing Joke, still as influential and boundary-pushing as it was when he started the band in the late ’70s.

Frank Zappa

Apart from being one of the most absurdly talented musicians of his generation in a purely technical sense — if you’ve never watched footage of him unleashing on guitar, do yourself a favor and click “Play” on the video above — Zappa was also a hugely versatile composer, his output encompassing rock, funk, jazz, fusion, experimental noodling, the occasional full classical opus, and a three-album song cycle about a dystopian future wherein a virus is unleashed to eradicate African Americans and homosexuals. Truly, we will never see his like again.

Missy Elliott

People kicked up something of a stink when we included Missy Elliott on our list of the 21st century’s most influential acts, but as far as shaping the sound of the genre over the last decade or so go, it’s hard to get past her work. This is the lady, after all, whose minimalist, futuristic sound laid the template for how hip hop would sound for most of this decade, and whose work has encompassed everything from slick R&B to dance floor-destroying anthems. We’re greatly looking forward to her long-awaited return with Block Party this year (hopefully).

Miles Davis

1987. A state dinner at the White House. By some amusing quirk of fate, Miles Davis is seated next to the First Lady. Hilarity ensues. Nancy Reagan: “What have you done to merit an invitation to the White House?” Miles Davis: “Well, I’ve changed the course of music five or six times. What have you done except fuck the president?”

Mike Patton

Surely no other musician in history has a discography that can claim both an album of Italian film soundtracks and a cheerful song about the joys of coprophagia. Patton was always prolific with Mr. Bungle and Faith No More, but he’s been responsible for a truly bewildering array of projects in recent years — Fantômas, Peeping Tom, his Mondo Cane album with its reworkings of Italian film music, a series of collaborations with John Zorn and Moonchild Trio, and several film scores for good measure.

Brian Eno

We never miss an opportunity to eulogize Mr. Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno on Flavorpill, and this list would be awfully incomplete without him. After all, this is a man who has been at the forefront of innovative production techniques, electronic music, ambient music, sound art, and all such of other fascinating stuff for the best part of 40 years.

Björk

Even Eno, though, never released an album on an iPad. (He did, in fairness, create an iPhone application.) Björk’s long been one of the most interesting and multi-talented people working in music, and while the music on Biophilia mightn’t have compared with the best work from her past, the sheer ambition of the album and its accompanying application was pretty impressive. God only knows what she’ll come up with next, but whatever it is, it’ll doubtless be fascinating.

Danny Elfman

Readers of our generation know him as the guy who wrote the theme to The Simpsons, while older readers will probably remember him as the weird singer from Oingo Boingo. Younger readers may well never have heard of Elfman at all, but whoever you are, you’ve certainly heard his music — he’s one of the most prolific composers of his generation, and his score music has been ubiquitous in Hollywood over the last 25 years or so. Most notably, Elfman has scored nearly all of his friend Tim Burton’s films, but he’s also provided wildly divergent music for everything from Men In Black to Milk.