Stylistically speaking, most artists tend to stick with a winning formula, or at least they stay within certain parameters. Occasionally, however, a major artist takes a severe turn, and releases an album so different from his or her previous work, it leaves fans scratching their heads. Such albums are often spurned initially, but in time they can attain ”cult classic” status. Below are 10 such discs.
Neil Young – Trans (1982)
No album from Neil Young baffled fans and critics as much as this 1982 effort did. Featuring a vocoder on the bulk of the tracks, the disc was inspired both by Young’s love of electronic music (especially Kraftwerk, at that time) and by his efforts to communicate with his son, who was born with cerebral palsy. With time, the album has come to be seen as one of Young’s most interesting and compelling musical projects.
The Rolling Stones – Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
Opinion remains divided on this sole “psychedelic” effort from the Stones, released just six months after The Beatles unveiled Sgt. Pepper’s. Fitted with mellotrons, orchestration and soundscape textures, the disc was a far cry from the blues-based triumphs that would soon follow. Outtakes have surfaced that show striking cooperation between Keith Richards, Brian Jones and session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins as the material was developed. “2000 Light Years from Home” and “She’s a Rainbow” sport two of the Stones’ strongest melodies.
Todd Rundgren – With a Twist (1997)
Todd Rundgren has made a career out of unexpected moves, but this 1997 album surprised even his most ardent fans. Re-recording his biggest hits and best-known songs, Rundgren embraced a full-blown bossa nova style, giving “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” and other classic-rock staples an entirely new stylistic life. On his subsequent theater tour, Rundgren fitted the stage with a tiki bar setting, and seated select audience members at lounge tables, where they were served exotic drinks by the monitor engineer.
Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music (1975)
Whether it was a sick joke, a demented masterpiece, or ground zero for industrial rock is debatable, but there’s no denying that this two-album noise-fest is unlike anything else ever released by a major label. Essentially an hour-plus opus of squalling guitar feedback, mixed at varying speeds, Metal Machine Music has been described as “the ultimate conceptual punk album.” Much credit is due Reed for having the audacity to release what many consider to be contemporary music’s most non-commercial album ever.
David Bowie – Young Americans (1975)
David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy (Low, “Heroes” and Lodger) are generally regarded as his most innovative work, but no disc in Bowie’s catalog marked as severe a stylistic turn as Young Americans. A 180-degree about-face from glam rock, this pseudo R&B disc – described by Bowie as “plastic soul” – spawned colossal hits in the title track and in the John Lennon collaboration, “Fame.” Recording at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound studios – home to The Spinners and The O’Jays – Bowie relied heavily on David Sanborn for superb sax work and on a pre-fame Luther Vandross for vocal arrangements. “Plastic” or not, Bowie’s achieved credibility as a funk artist among black audiences.
Sly & The Family Stone – There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)
Sly Stone was at the height of his commercial powers in 1971, having previously released the triumphant Stand! and a Greatest Hits album filled with some of the best soul-pop and psychedelic funk ever committed to vinyl. Rather than capitalize on such radio-friendly fare, however, Stone elected to do an about-face, and released an album filled with dark, edgy songs that reeked of disillusionment. In point of fact, Riot’s murky sound presaged The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., and today the disc is regarded as a masterpiece.
KISS – Music from “The Elder” (1981)
The motivation behind this 1981 concept album was two-fold: first, KISS were determined to reverse a downward trend in sales, and second, the group yearned to be regarded as “serious” artists. Enlisting Bob Ezrin as producer, the band at first announced they were returning to the straight-up rock sound that had made the Ezrin-produced Destroyer album a triumph. Instead, the direction turned toward an ambitious plot-line and such misguided musical decisions as enlisting the services of the American Symphony Orchestra. A disgruntled Ace Frehley broke from KISS soon after recording was complete. In the years hence, however, the disc has become something of a cult classic.
Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)
By the time Bruce Springsteen began recording demos for a new album in 1982, his backing group, the E Street Band, were regarded as one of rock’s most gloriously spirited ensembles. As he tracked the demos in rough form on a cassette-tape Portastudio, Springsteen fully intended that the E Streeters would flesh out the songs in the manner of previous discs. In the end, however, everyone involved felt the haunted, desolate beauty of the tracks was best preserved in their original form. To this day, the sparse, acoustic-based Nebraska is regarded as a singular high point in Springsteen’s catalog.
Yes – 90125 (1983)
Although Yes’s lineup changed often during the ’70s, the band had, throughout that decade, held firm to the classically inspired prog-rock on which its reputation was built. This 1983 album changed that. With producer-maestro Trevor Horn at the controls, and Trevor Rabin on guitar, the group created snappy, effects-laden pop perfectly suited to the newly launched MTV era. Yes eventually returned to their prog-rock ambitions, but 90125 (along with such singles as “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and “Leave It”) remains one of rock’s most strikingly daring departures.
Johnny Cash – American Recordings (1994)
Who could have imagined that a pairing of country legend Johnny Cash with rap/metal maestro Rick Rubin would yield one of the best albums of the ’90s? Dissatisfied with the manner in which his previous albums had been recorded, Cash nonetheless took a huge artistic risk when he agreed to Rubin’s suggestion to record in Cash’s living room, with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. The results were dazzling, with tracks such as “Delia’s Gone” and “Thirteen” (written by Glenn Danzig, specifically for Cash) dripping with heartrending beauty and aching authenticity. Most agreed the disc was easily Cash’s best in a quarter century.