No one saw Sgt. Pepper’s or Sandinista! coming. Neither sounded like anything anyone had done before, and they’re emblematic of why The Beatles and The Clash are two of the most important rock bands of all time. They took crazy risks, even though it meant alienating a lot of the teenyboppers and punk purists who’d made them famous and afforded them the luxury of experimenting. That anything-goes spirit is often lacking among today’s artists, perhaps because the Internet has created a culture of niche audiences with very specific tastes, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Through their music and/or offstage antics, the following 10 artists keep us guessing, risking our goodwill in the name of creativity. It’s a gamble the greats always take.
Even with his most straightforward project, The White Stripes, Jack White managed to avoid repeating himself. He did so by sneaking things like marimba and horns into what was supposedly a minimalist guitar-and-drums setup, and since splitting with partner Meg, he’s played in two distinct side-project bands—The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather—and dropped a solo record he promoted with two backing crews: one all male, the other all female. As head of Third Man Records, he’s gotten even nuttier, releasing novelties like glow-in-the-dark, liquid-filled, and scented records, as well as ones that spin at 3 rpm. And then there was the Mozart cover he cut with Insane Clown Posse—a single that needed no zany packaging to get people buzzing.
When Brian Burton came on the scene in 2004, some dismissed him as a novelty artist. Luckily, his much-discussed debut—the Beatles-Jay Z mash-up The Grey Album—marked the arrival not of a gimmicky flash-in-the-pan producer, but rather a sonic wanderer with impeccable taste and a love of collaboration. Over the last decade, he’s formed killer duos with Cee Lo Green and James Mercer and produced records by Beck, the Black Keys, Norah Jones, and U2, among others. His is the rare discography in which a soundtrack for a nonexistent spaghetti Western recorded with an Italian composer is merely another bullet point, almost an afterthought.
Photo by Joshua Mellin
When Kanye West eventually bites it—perhaps dying in a botched Martian space launch before rising, in all his Yeezus glory, three days later—his tombstone may bear a line from his Jay Z collabo Watch the Throne: “That shit cray.” Initially a backpack rapper with an interesting backstory, Ye very quickly flipped the script and took off on a maddeningly brilliant career path that’s left some transfixed, others infuriated, and everyone engaged on some level. He might be the only rapper outside of Eminem your mother has an opinion about, and he’s certainly the only one who’s rocked with Elton John, proposed in a baseball stadium, and picked a fight with Taylor Swift. Give him a microphone, he’ll tell you how great he is. Hand him a sketchpad, he’ll design you some couture ladies wear or Adidas sneakers. His sheer existence makes this one of the more interesting times in human history to be alive.
Lana Del Rey
Why are we still talking about LDR? Because all those critics who thought they had her pegged and wrote her off as a phony former pop singer playing dress-up totally underestimated her. Her 2012 album, Born to Die, was actually good, and filming the video for “National Anthem”, she enlisted rapper ASAP Rocky to play the Jack to her Jackie Kennedy in a bizarre Camelot fantasy. That’s just one of her unforgettable videos, and last year, she starred in Tropico, a short film in which she plays the biblical Eve. Her next album—which Dan Auerbach is producing—is called Ultraviolence, and if this sometime H&M model and full-time Lady Gaga hater doesn’t make it a concept record about A Clockwork Orange, she’ll probably do something even more awesome.
If Blur lost the Britpop battle to Oasis, at least in terms of U.S. sales, frontman Damon Albarn won the war. He’s arguably best known for his subsequent project, the cartoon band Gorillaz, and his CV also includes The Good, the Bad and the Queen, featuring Paul Simonon of the Clash; Rocket Juice & the Moon, a collaboration with Flea; and the soundtracks for two stage productions, one an opera about the 16th century British doctor and scientist John Dee, the other a musical based on an ancient Chinese novel. It’s enough to make you forget about Mali Music, the record he made with some of his buddies down in Africa. Later this year, Damon drops his first proper solo album, something a more conventional rocker would have done 10 years ago.
Whatever creativity Dave Grohl doesn’t channel into Foo Fighters—a down-the-middle rock band who owe their success to an accessibility bordering on blandness—he channels into other pursuits. He’s sat in with the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Tenacious D, and Queens of the Stone Age and banged the skins in the super group Them Crooked Vultures, featuring John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. Last year, he showed off his filmmaking skills with Sound City, and recording the soundtrack, he nabbed Paul McCartney to play Kurt Cobain in a “Nirvana reunion” featuring Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear. He also produced a record by the Zac Brown Band, crossing country off of a rapidly shrinking to-do list.
As Kevin Smith puts it, Prince has been “living in Prince World” for quite some time, and that means he abides by his own set of rules. One minute, he’s suing fans for copyright infringement, the next, he’s Tweeting news of a new single whose cover features a still from that great Chappelle’s Show sketch where Dave portrays Prince as a pancake-grilling b-ball master. Next week, you’ll hear news of a surprise show that went until 2 a.m., and later this year, he’ll play the greatest headlining set Glastonbury has ever seen. If he gets the Saturday slot, he’ll have Sunday’s breakfast covered.
OK, so Norah Jones isn’t that unpredictable, but considering where her career began—2002’s Come Away with Me, a CD that resides in your mom’s glove compartment to this day—she’s made some interesting choices. Rather than churn out disc after disc of jazzy, polite piano pop, she’s dabbled in music that might actually appeal to her peer group, especially on her two most recent albums, The Fall (2009) and Little Broken Hearts (2012). The latter was produced by Danger Mouse—whose aforementioned spaghetti-western homage she’d sung on the previous year—and beyond that, she’s jammed with Willie Nelson, Wilco, Q-Tip, Belle and Sebastian, and Herbie Hancock. In 2008, she and her punk band, El Madmo, dropped their self-titled debut, and last year, she teamed with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong on Foreverly, a track-for-track recreation of the Everly Brothers’ 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Ten bucks says she can rap.
In 1981, after five albums of wonderfully nervy New Wave, Elvis Costello made his first major stylistic detour and dropped a country album, Almost Blue. Since then, he’s tried just about every style of music you can think of, some more successfully than others. In the last decade alone, he’s done an alt-country record, a ballet score, a soul-jazz team-up LP with Allen Toussaint, a respectable return-to-rock album, two discs of roots rock with T-Bone Burnett, and last year’s Roots collabo Wise Up Ghost, a left-field move even by his standards. His ambition sometimes outstrips his abilities—no one’s played 2003’s failed pop-jazz experiment North since the day they bought it—but his batting average beats the hell out of Sting’s.
On his early albums, Beck was unpredictable from one bar to the next, shimmying from hip-hop to folk to indie rock to whatever else he felt like trying, all with apparent ease. Although his output has slowed down some, and he no longer stuffs his tracks with samples and stylistic U-turns, he still finds ways to surprise. In 2012, he released Song Reader, an unrecorded album presented as sheet music, and last week, he returned with Morning Phase, one of two LPs he’s planning for this year. In terms of collaborators, the “G” section of his Rolodex alone includes the names Philip Glass, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Macy Gray.