Thursday, April 21, 2011

The 15 Craziest Transitions in Music History (So Far)

As I was watching a particular artist release his latest album, all I could do was sit there and ponder what on earth happened in his career that caused him to shift so badly in style, image, and persona. The ____ of back then would totally beat the bejeeses (not a word, I know) of the _______ of today. And the most fascinating thing is that very few people nowadays point this out. He is an example of a musician that in the middle of his/her established career, made a total change in style and execution. Some transitions are good, some of them are bad, and some of them are downright awful. And here I am to rank the artists that made the biggest transitional changes in the music world---good or bad.

Before we start this list though, let’s point out that I will not include artists/bands that are very well-known for changing their style constantly: Blondie, the Beatles, Elton John, The Police, Led Zeppelin, Queen, the Ventures, Pink Floyd, Nirvana, and System of a Down being the top examples. Let’s move on.

Honorable Mention: Koji Kondo
Started As: 8-bit Video game composer of NES/SNES masterpieces
Transformed Into: A well-established whole-nine-yards composer
Result: Amazing

Koji Kondo evolved because he had to, not because he wanted to. As video games became much more advanced in the realm of technology and presentation, Nintendo turned to him to keep up with the pace. And with the incredible soundtracks of Super Mario Galaxy, its safe to say that Kondo is caught up and more than capable of tackling larger projects.

#15: Heart
Started As: Edgy rock band full of female angst
Became: Power ballad hungry group
Result: Bad. Successful, but bad.

Heart started out in the 1970s as a great band full of incredible guitar work, recognizable and catchy riffs, and some great vocals coming from the two female singers. And then came the 80s when power ballads became all the rage. Instead of fighting it, they went with the flow and created album after album of softer, gentler albums with minimal guitar and more focus on the vocals. So while the mainstream accepted them nicely, we rock fans were left in the dust, pondering if they would ever come back. Nope.

#14: No Doubt
Started As: Underground punk/ska band with plenty of female angst
Became: Calmer pop rock band with heavy island influence
Result: Different. They were better before, but not too bad now

Gwen Stefani was pissed. Just like Alanis Morissette back in the mid-90s, Gwen sounded like she wanted to tear your face off and then hug you for sympathy. This blend of quiet subtle loverage turned Tragic Kingdom into a masterpiece of an album that remains among the best of the 90s. And then she stopped being so mad and soon the rage dissipated, resulting in their next album being a bit of a flop. The emotion wasn’t there anymore, and she couldn’t pull a Pearl Jam and hold it in as long as humanely possible. So what do you do? Record your next album in an island, with the influence and the sound engulfing the eardrums. What we get is Rock Steady, and the rest is music history. No Doubt makes an incredible comeback with hit after hit. Rock was replaced with reggae, and rage was replaced with pop. Edginess was replaced with radio-friendly. And Gwen’s popularity came right back. For those of us that know them best, they will not just retire---but we know better than to expect them to ever come back to sounding as cool as they did in 1995.

#13: Will Smith
Started As: Part of a subtle underground fun hip-hop duo
Became: A solo rapper with surprise hit after surprise hit
Result: Better, sort of

Will Smith was part of the underground northern rap scene with Jazzy Jeff in the late 80s. They earned the first rap Grammy, but somewhere in this success was a lacking of mainstream knowledge. Insert a hit television show and a couple hit movies later, and Will Smith is suddenly a household name. So, do you keep the same style of storytelling, carefree rap? Or do you head in a different direction? After the unofficial breakup, Will Smith decided to helm his own name. The storytelling disappears, the DJ disappears, and instead he comes up with harder beats, more sophisticated lyrics, yet still retains the carefree, friendly rap style that made him a hit in the first place. And just when you think his next song couldn’t be big—there it is in the Billboard charts.

#12: MC Hammer
Started As: The leader of popular rap
Became: A Gangster rapper. Yes, a gangster rapper
Result: Dismal failure. No wonder he went bankrupt.

MC Hammer was not the best of lyricists, nor was he the grandfather of anything sophisticated hip-hop. But, like Will Smith in the 90s, he had his share of fun and catchy tunes that lit up the mainstream. Despite what you may think, its MC Hammer not Run DMC that truly shoved rap and hip-hop into the tops of the charts and into the mainstream. His sampling of earlier classics would also pave the way for a resurgence in old-old-old school R&B. And somewhere along the lines he thought it would be a good idea to enter the gangster rap game. It was a terrible mistake because for years, we already saw him as a fresh, friendly entertainer with great dance moves and a cheeky personality. Associating him with anything gangster was going to be a mistake. But, who listens, eh? MC Hammer becomes a disastrous disappointment, as he becomes a rapping contradiction by trying to gain a new crowd and keep his old one by bouncing between mildly vulgar lyrics with mildly vulgar videos with a minimal tinkering of edginess. It couldn’t work, and it never worked. His career never recovered.

#11: Eminem
Started As: The best rapper in the business, hands-down
Became: A disjointed mess.
Result: Thank goodness he made a comeback

Eminem was a reckoning force of rap we have never seen before. He had the flow of BIG, the street cred of Tupac, the lyrical range of Common, and the rage of the angriest of rockers. He was not only able to conquer hip-hop, but also rampaged through rock music with some of his heavier songs. He is arguably the first case of rap to influence the genre of rock since the Beastie Boys in the late 80s. And his peak was Lose Yourself, a subtle homage to Detroit while at the same time spewing some of the fiercest and incredible lyrics produced in hip-hop at that time. #1 in over a dozen countries (unheard of in rap) and even won an Oscar. So why on earth did he reduce himself to dedicating a song to insulting Michael Jackson, dropping his Slim Shady persona, and dedicating an entire album to melodrama? Eminem’s stylistic ways disappeared, as he suddenly became an average rapper with poor attempts at humor and poorer attempts to recreate the emotion from the first couple albums. Eminem’s drastic change was that he reduced himself into normality. When you had amazing stuff like “Stan,” “Guilty Conscience,” “Real Slim Shady,” songs with real originality, it nearly hurts to hear “Crack a Bottle,” and “We Made You.” Conclusion? Eminem got lazy, and when he becomes normal, his material dies with his originality.

P.S. Thank goodness for his comeback.

#10: Christina Aguilera
Started As: Pop princess and Spears’ biggest rival
Became: Slut. With a voice.
Result: She still sings?

It has been nearly 10 years since she’s had a hit. Could it be because she turned into a slut? Could it be because she pulled a Mariah Carey and started oversinging everything? Could it be because her identity became extremely inconsistent? Or could it be because she abandoned her Latin roots and failed to maintain an audience? Christina Aguilera had it all, she had a spectacular debut album in English AND Spanish while at the same time separating herself from the pack by having a superior voice and a few kicks of Latin—something sorely missing from the early 2000s American Pop Princess marathon (Spears, Moore, Macy Gray, Dream, 3LW, etc). Instead of maintaining that pace, she comes up with a different, easy-like-Sunday-morning sound while not using any Hispanic influence, and just turning into another pop-princess-that-eventually-disappears-into-the-night. By the way, her first album remains the best by far, and has yet to create a song that comes even close to the quality of “Come on Over.”

#9: Pearl Jam
Started As: Grunge Gods that took the Rock n’ Roll throne after Nirvana’s dissipation
Became: Just another band…
Result: Ugh.

Pearl Jam was a band for the fans. They didn’t release singles; they defied mainstream play, they hated TicketMaster, constantly performed live, and just altered the way bands interact with fans. We felt that Pearl Jam wasn’t a megaband, but a down-to-earth band that is just like us---except talented. They sang with skill, precision, and plenty of emotion. And then came this last album. There was minimal emotion, instead a lot of bubbly pop tunes. And now, they are releasing the album exclusively at Target? Is this the same band? Why exclusively at Target? What happened to the unfairness of big business striving to make a profit off of someone else’s property? This didn’t sound like Pearl Jam, which probably makes sense because their album gave me the same thought too. Its more the action than the music that pits Pearl Jam on this list so high, but...that last album wasn't good either....

#8: Green Day
Started As: The leaders of 90s punk
Became: A Political act that happens to play music.
Result: A mixed bag of oooooo and …………….

Green Day ran the 90s with a wrecking ball of punk rock, personality, and incredible fast-paced music that’s perfect for concerts, and perfect to jam out with friends. And then suddenly American Idiot arrived and our beloved punk band has become political, has started looking like the other emo bands, and their sound was mildly stripped. I am not anti-political groups (Rage Against the Machine anyone?) but after years of playing for the teenage/slacker masses, suddenly becoming political and trying to establish a voice came out of left field. And then releasing all the quieter songs as singles instead of the heavier material---just screams sell-out. Oh wait, you all don’t scream anymore, that part of your music career is over. And after “21 Guns,” my listening relationship with you guys will remain stuck in the 90s playlist.

#7: Nelly Furtado
Started As: Indie Princess
Became: Hip-Hop Sellout
Result: Ugh…

I was not the biggest Nelly Furtado fan, but I respected her calmer, independent, more unique approach to pop music. Instead of the clichéd lyrics, clichéd sound, and clichéd sex appeal, Furtado had a cleaner image, fully-clothed look, and slick vocal talent. After her second album quietly sold next to nothing however, she started looking for a way to make more success. Calling Timbaland was a start, and then removing all the things that made you unique was the next step. Now, we have a Furtado with fewer clothes, in the club, and talking about flirtation and sex, just like any other R&B artist. It was quite a punch to her followers at the time, as she found a new audience, but practically lost everyone from before. Now instead of living underground legendary (Like the Pixies and Velvet Underground) you are a forgotten footnote in urban music last decade. From “I’m Like a Bird” to “Promiscuous.” Sad.

#6: Metallica
Started As: THE band that invented and perfected modern metal
Became: A mainstream phenomenon that alienated the fanbase
Result: Never recovered from Black Album, did you?

Metallica in the 80s was unstoppable in the underground metal scene. With masterpiece albums like “Master of Puppets,” and “…And Justice For All,” Metallica was driving thrash/hardcore metal with its vicious sound, and impressive technique. And then came the Black Album, in which they lowered the volume, toned down the lyrics, removed all guitar solos, and started a blues sound that remained with them until 2009. While “Enter Sandman” is a Metallica staple and the album produced some good music, enough damage was done. The next several albums was doing the same procedure, becoming quieter, calmer, and friendlier to mainstream ears. Want to know the ultimate example of them making a heck of a transition? In 1984, they released “Master of Puppets,” an album about losing control in a variety of ways. Just last year, I saw them in “The View.”

#5: Linkin Park
Started As: Hardcore incredibleness that ruled all nu-metal
Became: A Dismal Disaster
Result: A Dismal Disaster

Hybrid Theory was one of those albums that just exploded out of nowhere. The intense vocals, the bleeding amount of emotion, and the heavy blend of rock, rap, and electronic hardcore made Linkin Park the new leaders of the nu-metal scene, quickly dispatching Korn and Limp Bizkit in a heartbeat. Unlike most nu-metal, Linkin Park had the vocals and raw talent to back up the rage and frustration of the lyrics, especially with Chester at the helm doing some ear-splicing screams. Meteora continues the same formula of talented rage, as this band seemed unstoppable. Unfortunately for all of us, they thought their sound needed to become more mature. What mature meant, we will never ever know. The second you heard their watery approach to the Transformers soundtrack you knew disaster was looming. Their rampaging sound dissipated into quiet nothingness, as their talent was suddenly being totally wasted. The DJ wasn’t ripping at the seams, the singer was singing his heart out, the rapper wasn’t spitting lyrics coherently, and the percussion wasn’t being challenged. All their music from here on out followed the same route, with few exceptions (none of which ever became singles). Their only so-called mature changes were that they used a bit more profanity, which was highly unnecessary most of the time. Linkin Park is high on this list because they are barely a fraction of what they used to be, and there is no hope in the horizon for change.

#4: Pantera
Started As: Glam Rock
Became: One of the best metal bands ever
Result: Incredibleness

Pantera’s stomping through the 90s made everyone forget they used to play glam rock against Journey and Van Halen back in the 80s. They definitely had the talent, but weren’t really utilizing it that well. But then they switched lead singers, and all of a sudden they had a lineup fit not for rock, but for metal. Dimebag was already a guitar whiz, and the backup instrumentals had already proven themselves as worthy. And now add Phil Anselmo and the heavier sound is born. Pantera was an instrumentally talented but vocally weak band before 1987. All of a sudden, they had a singer that can sing, scream, growl, and curse you to a point in which you are afraid of the music playing. The attitude changed, the music became more organized, more aggressive, and had none of the plastic emotion of glam rock. This was hardcore stuff, and you had to accept it or run away. In one of the few cases of music in which a major transition actually worked, Pantera was such a great band and such a great innovator, you forget that they started out sounding like a Van Halen wanna-be. Now, they are the band that everyone wants to become. And to this day, I have yet to find a modern band that can duplicate its mix of technical brilliance and fearsome emotion....and have yet to find a modern guitarist even close to duplicating the amazingness of Dimebag Darrell.

#3: Sugar Ray
Started As: Hardcore, nu-metal underground band
Became: Adult contemporary we all know about
Result: Better, and it hurts to say it too

In another example of “They used to sound like that!?!?!”, Sugar Ray was at first a very loud and hardcore band that screamed out lyrics, flung around intense guitar riffs, and had a I-don’t-care attitude that made them an underground sensation. It is almost unfathomable to believe that the band that cranked out the “Mean Machine” song found in the third-generation classic game Road Rash also created the underrated pop gem “Fly.” Fly was their calmest song in their album, and ironically became their last single, and ironically created that #1 hit that pushed them into unbelievable success. And if you look into their career, you notice that they every so often like to point out their hardcore roots and reminisce. Now, I can’t really hate them for toning their sound, because Mark’s vocals worked best whenever he wasn’t screaming, and the production sounded more cleaned up when their music matured. That being said, I wonder how they would sound today if “Fly” had never taken off.

#2: Justin Timberlake
Started As: Leader of pop band phenomenon N*SYNC
Became: Surprise-Surprise leader in the R&B world
Result: Quite good actually

If you had told me in 2000 that Timberlake would break off and become a hip-hop star that constantly gets offers from other rappers, I most likely would not believe you. Nonetheless, N*SYNC already started transitioning to hip-hop when songs like “Gone,” and “Girlfriend” got hip-hop/R&B/Urban airplay, while Timberlake started developing a love for the genre by beatboxing in the “Pop” video. There were small clues, but we truly didn’t catch the signs until his first solo album. And even then, it was him just getting his feet wet—similar to Michael Jackson in his first solo album. I note that similarity because: Jackson and Timberlake both came from ultra-popular groups, both had a mature sound from the getgo, and hit their peak by the second album. Justin’s second album certified that this man was making one of the most bizzare yet wholly successful transitions in the history of music. From singing pop ballads to being in a song with 3-6 Mafia, Justin Timberlake shows diversity, creativity, and the ability to overcome perceived public image to produce his next big hit…..or his next big collaboration.

#1: Kid Rock
Started As: One of the Rulers of 90s rock
Became: A country star was is a wussified version of his former self. And a sellout. And a hack. And nothing like what he used to be
Result: ……………………………(boom)

I shouldn’t have to explain myself or this atrocity that has occurred in musical history. Kid Rock was the baddest of the bad, the raddest of the rad. He was an excellent mix of southern rock, southern rap, and hardcore music. His sound was unique, and got the attention of everyone around, from rockers like Fred Durst and Bob Segar, right down to the rappers like Eminem and even Snoop Dogg. Kid Rock’s breakthrough album was impressive, as it meshed old-school hip hop with new-school southern rock that we haven’t experienced since the Lynyrd Skynrd days. And then came his realization that he can develop a wider audience if we went to country full-time. While he dabbed on country at times, just the thought of the man behind “Bawitdaba” going into the Kenny Chesney/Toby Keith genre was unthinkable. There was no way, he couldn’t.

After his duet with Sheryl Crow, that was it. Kid Rock stopped rapping, the instruments stopped blasting, and his videos no longer featured dirt bikes jumping over half-naked women. Yes none of this was morally fulfilling, but the hard rock/nu-metal scene of the late 90s was never aiming for that. Now we have Kid Rock totally sounding like a typical, watered-down country singer, totally forgetting that back then he used to rock with the best of them. Now he is just pathetic. The Kid Rock of 1999 would physically destroy the wimpy Kid Rock of today. Makes me sick. And the only reason he gets away with it is because Devil without a Cause was his FIRST breakthrough album, giving him time to alter his image before it was too late. But to us that have been yearning for a musical rock revolution that we have not seen since 1999, it hurts all too much. To this day it makes me sick.

Very sick.

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