There are artistes who created such a recognisable sound that it became a lasting signature, used throughout their career as a representation of what they accomplished.
For others, the constant need for exploration and unpredictability became a signature sound in its own right, resulting in discographies there are so varied that it seems incredible the same minds were involved in their development.
Today we’ll talk about artistes who never stopped experimenting, even when they reached a popularity that would make it much more convenient for them to play it safe.
These are the people who could find the balance between restless creativity and success, leading their audience on a journey of evolution rather than a static repetition of what worked in the past.
Despite the diversity of artistes included in this list, what they all have in common is respect towards their audience’s intelligence and their own artistry.
They gave voice to their own evolution and opened up with their fans, who responded with the same passion and honesty.
Prince at Coachella 2008. Credit: penner/Wikimedia Commons
There haven’t been many artistes like Prince, before or after him.
His vibrant stage persona, restless creativity, and skills as a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and music entrepreneur have been an example for artistes who want to express themselves fully through their art.
Prince purposely defied easy categorisation throughout his career, jumping from pop to rock, R&B and funk with ease.
His greatest hits of the 1980s are a blend of pop and electro with a funk vibe that has defined R&B ever since, while his last works, from Musicology onwards, masterfully combine more modern sounds with peerless production and his timeless blend of music genres.
He is a true genius of our times.
Frank Zappa in Mothers of Invention (1971). Credit: Herb Cohen Management/Wikimedia Commons
Frank Zappa knew no boundaries. With a discography comprising over sixty albums, ranging from the surreal Freak Out! with The Mothers Of Invention to the more pop-oriented but still quite avant-garde Sheik Yerbouti, Zappa left a legacy that we might never be able to fully grasp.
Inspired by psychedelic rock as much as by musique concrete, Zappa today is considered one of the unmatched geniuses of rock music, who expressed himself genuinely while leaving a coherent body of work exploring all music styles.
Peter Gabriel at Skoll Awards 2011. Credit: Skoll World Forum, editing by W.carter/Wikimedia Commons
While rock band Genesis did reach stardom thanks to their hits in the 1980s and with Phil Collins as a singer, their early years were defined by their progressive experimentation and the evocative voice of Peter Gabriel.
Selling England By The Pound, a personal favourite of mine, is probably one of the best expressions of the 1970s prog-rock, but it also introduced sounds that will become a signature for the future generations of hard rock bands worldwide.
Since 1977, Gabriel has released solo albums that masterfully combine the experimentation of the finest art rock with the ever-changing pop music landscape.
Seeing him performing “My Body Is A Cage” by Arcade Fire in 2011, accompanied by a full orchestra, has been one of the most powerful live moments I’ve ever experienced.
Björk at Hurricane Festival. Credit: Zach Klein from New York/Wikimedia Commons
With a career spanning three decades, Björk has inspired generations of artistes thanks to her relentless creative research.
By blending and transcending different styles, ranging from the trip-hop influences of Debut to the voice-centred, avant-garde album Medulla, Björk’s imaginative soundscapes empowered electronic music, giving it the depth it rightly deserved.
Releasing albums only when creativity calls, Björk demonstrates that creative freedom and global success can go hand in hand.
Radiohead at Montreal (2018). Credit: Raph_PH/Wikimedia Commons
I can’t think of any other band that managed to evolve so much over the last 20 years while staying genuinely true to themselves.
Yorke & Co wrote some of the most influential chapters of post-grunge rock in the 1990s, then went full-alternative with the timeless OK Computer before veering towards electronic soundscapes with their Kid A.
Released under a Creative Commons license (something almost unheard at the time, except for Ghosts by Nine Inch Nails), In Rainbows features a genuine return to indie roots for a band that represents everything that’s good in rock music these days.
NINE INCH NAILS
Nine Inch Nails at Staples Center (2013). Credit: Al Pavangkanan/Wikimedia Commons
What differentiates Trent Reznor from most eclectic artistes these days is that he’s managed to create a unique sound and kept delving into it, with a discography that explores dozens of genres while feeling extremely coherent.
Since Nine Inch Nail’s debut album, the heavy industrial-rock Pretty Hate Machine, Reznor showed that industrial music could reach the depths of more traditional genres, with the following albums, The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, becoming unquestionable classics of the 1990s.
Later on, also thanks to his fruitful collaboration with Atticus Ross, Reznor explored more cinematic realms, scoring evocative soundtracks for movies like The Social Network and Mank.
It’s hard to imagine that the same guys who released the 2000s’ Reinventing The Steel are also the ones who made Metal Magic in 1983.
Following the opposite path of what most metal bands usually take, Pantera kept pushing the boundaries to the most extreme soundscapes right until their separation.
After leaving behind their glam-rock influences, the Abbott brothers, with the one-of-kind frontman Phil Anselmo and Rex Brown on the bass guitar, redefined the heavy metal of the 1990s in a crescendo of heavy metal madness starting from Cowboys From Hell and ending with the granitic Reinventing The Steel.
The albums that made Pink Floyd a legendary rock band in the 1970s are only the tip of the iceberg of an artistic journey that started with the heavy improvisation and psychedelia of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.
Here, the raw yet sophisticated writing style of Syd Barrett merged gracefully with the intricated psychedelic layers of the band, bringing to life a pivotal album for the genre.
Over the decades, Pink Floyd were able to adapt their sound to the current trends and sometimes even anticipate them, as was the case with the more pop-oriented The Wall, released in 1979.
And while their latest The Endless River might feel nostalgic rather than experimental, it’s still an album that celebrates the timelessness of one of the best rock bands of all time.
David Bowie at Tweeter Center (2002). Credit: Adam Bielawski/Wikimedia Commons
Throughout his career, David Bowie reinvented his creative persona countless times, defying categorisation since his early works.
While Bowie started with a rather traditional folk-rock, hippie-influenced sound in the late 1960s, in the following decade he created his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, the alien whose electric stage persona and love for rock experimentation singlehandedly started the glam-rock era.
Right until the end, Bowie never stopped exploring new soundscapes.
Released a couple of days before his death, Blackstar is one of his most experimental works, blending electronic music with jazz contaminations and an ethereal voice that feels otherworldly yet highly poignant.
Kate Bush was already a visionary, eclectic artiste in her teens, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that her discography is an uncompromising ensemble of experimental works, merging her singing and songwriting capabilities with an endless passion for experimentation.
From her 1978’s The Kick Inside to her 1993’s The Red Shoes, Bush released albums that were experimental, intimate and ridiculously successful.
Very few artistes were able to achieve such success with the same level of creative freedom Bush had.
In the male-dominated music industry of the time, Bush paved the way for future generations of female artistes giving voice to their creative selves.
Opeth at University of East Anglia (2019). Credit: kitmasterbloke/Wikimedia Commons
Death metal with a heart. Even in their earlier, heavier works Orchid and Morningrise you might be able to hear the evocative instrumental interludes that made Opeth legendary.
Their gradual transformation from death metal to progressive rock led them to explore a wide range of sounds, with their 2003’s Damnation representing the polar opposite of the growl-heavy sound that defined their earlier works.
As a band in constant evolution, Opeth has gathered a huge audience worldwide thanks to critically-acclaimed albums that feel coherent and genuine despite their complexity and unpredictability.
Check out the complete 'Reinvent the Wheel' playlist on Spotify now.
Cover Credit: Radiohead at Montreal (2018). Credit: Raph_PH/Wikimedia Commons
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Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.