40 Artists Who Challenged Fans With Unconventional Records

Restless artists have been around ever since music started to be performed, written down and recorded. It’s in artists’ nature to challenge themselves, and by turns, their audience with their work. Nobody wants to hear the same four chords rehashed over and over.

But as the below list of 40 Artists Who Challenged Fans With Unconventional Records shows, sometimes artists push a little too far. Whether it’s the lovable mop tops turning on, tuning in and dropping within a few years of their debut or seemingly everyone going disco at the end of the ’70s, it wasn’t always easy to blindly follow favorite artists into their newest ventures.

Some of these detours are less striking than others (who didn’t go psychedelic in 1967 or 1968?); others were the result of a creative mastermind falling off the deep end. Whatever their reasons for fighting against expectations, the below artists rarely stumbled so far that they couldn’t recover. And in the process, some interesting, if not representative, works emerged.

The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys didn’t stray far from their core interests of girls, cars and surfing at first. Then Brian Wilson became infatuated with Phil Spector‘s Wall of Sound and the Beatles and began spending more and more studio time on his group’s records. Pet Sounds (1966) was his first album-length statement; for the follow-up, he proposed a “teenage symphony to God.” Smile drove him mad and remained on the shelf for more than 40 years, but its complex and often bizarre songs found homes on the Beach Boys’ late-’60s and early ’70s LPs. Many of their pop fans had stopped listening by then.

The Beatles

It didn’t take the Beatles long to outgrow their cuddly pop-star image. The giant leaps from 1964 to 1968 can seem abrupt when viewed from a distance, but the timeline runs more smoothly when charted yearly or even monthly, as the case may be. Still, how many fans listening to “She Loves You” in 1963 would have named the same group behind 1966’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”? For these new twists to their narrative, 1968’s The Beatles offers some of their most challenging works, from Paul McCartney‘s music hall throwback “Honey Pie” to John Lennon‘s “Revolution 9” audio assault.

David Bowie

David Bowie practically made a sport out of challenging his fans. After 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars elevated him to the A-list, it didn’t take him long to abandon the glam-rock songs and costumes for other territories. The “Berlin Trilogy” starting with 1977’s Low took the biggest leap: experimental electronic music with collaborators Brian Eno and Tony Visconti. Bowie’s creative restlessness never wavered; his final album, Blackstar, was released just days before his 2016 death and contained some of his most complex and daring music.

The Byrds

The Byrds‘ 1965 debut Mr. Tamboruine Man included four Bob Dylan songs, one Pete Seeger composition and originals in the folk-rock vein. But within a few years, they began looking outside the genre for inspiration, incorporating psychedelic shadings and more intricate textures into their music. 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers made room for country, electronic and jazz in their expanding palette; later that year, with new member Gram Parsons partially calling the shots, they released Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a full dive into country music that became a guide for future generations.

The Clash

Tagged as a punk band, and almost immediately disavowed through words and songs, the Clash quickly progressed to making records that spanned styles and decades. Their third-album masterpiece London Calling was a double LP wrapped in everything from rockabilly and ska to jazz and pop. Next time out they went one better: a triple album with deep excursions into dub, spoken word and children-sung covers of their songs. Sandinista! dared even the most devout fans to listen all the way through. Messy and sprawling, it’s as much a reaction to London Calling as it is a companion.

Creedence Clearwater Revival

It was fairly obvious by late 1970 Creedence Clearwater Revival was burning out. Four albums in 18 months not only drained John Fogerty‘s songwriting but also band relationships. They built their sound on a foundation of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, bayou swamp rock and the blues and R&B that found its way into many artists’ music of the period. Despite a pair of songs from the CCR playbook – “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and “Hey Tonight” – their sixth and penultimate LP Pendulum branched into territory that left many fans perplexed. See the six-minute psychedelic freak-out “Rude Awakening #2.”

Miles Davis

From the start, jazz great Miles Davis never stayed in one place musically. His four-decade recording career as a solo artist reflects a restless creativity untied to the genre’s apparent limitations. After a run of lush, orchestral albums with arranger Gil Evans in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Davis began moving toward more experimental music by the end of the decade. With 1969’s In a Silent Way, he extended his band to include musicians who stoked his celebrated fusion period, which culminated with the next year’s Bitches Brew, a milestone record that bridged rock, jazz and world music.

The Doors

The Doors‘ mix of blues, psychedelia and Summer of Love pop had served them well for three albums when they headed into their fourth in 1969. Short on songs – a tour left them exhausted, and Jim Morrison was more occupied with his poetry – they tried some new things on The Soft Parade, including touches of jazz, an artier approach and, most controversially, adding horns and strings to some of the tracks. The result was an album that bordered on lounge pop at times, fan-risking art-rock at others. “Touch Me” went to No. 3, but the album was their first not to crack the Top 5.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has spent a huge percentage of his career challenging fans, from the time he plugged in his guitar and went electric in the ’60s to the trio of American Songbook albums he released in the ’10s. There was also his born-again period that led into much of the ’80s piecing together records few wanted to hear. But his most notorious album came in 1970 after a country detour. The two-LP Self Portrait is controversial even now, a confusing mix of traditional songs, contemporary covers and half-hearted new originals bathed in strings, horns and saccharine backing vocals.

Fleetwood Mac

With Album No. 11 Fleetwood Mac became one of the biggest groups in the world. The gazillion-selling Rumours finally landed the former British blues rockers, with help from a pair of Americans, at the top of the bestseller mountain. For their follow-up, they yielded control to Lindsey Buckingham, who went over budget in producing a double-record curio that rivaled Brian Wilson’s mad studio masterpieces of the ’60s. Tusk is an often overlooked gem, but in 1979 it was deemed a failure after stalling at No. 4. A rich, textured and frustrating work that shared little with the slick L.A. pop of its predecessor.

Genesis

Prog giants Genesis had flirted with pop even when Peter Gabriel was leading them (see: “I Know What I Like [In Your Wardrobe],” about a man and his lawnmower), and their second album without him included “Your Own Special Way,” a love song cast among the usual genre-approved epics. But in 1978’s … And Then There Were Three … , the newly trimmed trio began their pop music conversion in earnest, penning songs such as “Follow You Follow Me” (their first Top 40 hit in the U.S. and the first U.K. Top 10) and “Many Too Many” that set the template for their massive ’80s successes.

READ MORE: 25 Songs That Almost Ruined Classic Albums

George Harrison

Musically speaking, George Harrison was the most adventurous of the Beatles during their second act. His explorations in Indian music introduced the sitar and tabla to rock music. Coupled with his dissatisfaction over the number of songs he was getting on Beatles albums, it’s little surprise that he was the first to release a solo album in 1968. Wonderwall Music was the instrumental soundtrack to a little-seen film; he followed up the next year with Electronic Sound, a self-explanatory, two-track dive into early electronic music, again all instrumental. Not what fans were expecting.

Billy Joel

Once Billy Joel finally had a breakthrough hit with his fifth album, The Stranger, he rarely took an expected path, following up two No. 1 albums with, first, a political record (1982’s The Nylon Curtain) and then a tribute to pop music’s past (1983’s An Innocent Man). But nobody expected an eight-year recording break after 1993’s River of Dreams to be revived with a purely classical record that doubled as his final album of new material. Written by Joel but performed by pianist Richard Joo, Fantasies & Delusions‘ 12 pieces, unsurprisingly, were met with mainstream indifference.

David Johansen

Maybe the leap from one outlandish costume to another isn’t all that big in David Johansen‘s worldview. As the frontman for the platform- and feathered boa-wearing glam punks New York Dolls, he was all high camp and twisted facial expressions; after their quick burnout, he resurfaced in the mid-’80s as the martini-sipping Buster Poindexter playing jump blues and novelty songs. It was a jarring transition for fans of the underground cult band to see Johansen hamming it up on television with Johnny Carson and mugging for MTV’s eager cameras.

The Kinks

Ray Davies had grown weary of the three-chord guitar rock that helped the Kinks ride a wave of Beatlemania success, so by 1966’s “Sunny Afternoon” he was moving toward a more sophisticated pop tethered to the past while also forecasting a psychedelic future. Something Else included the classic “Waterloo Sunset” as well as the kaleidoscopic “Lazy Old Sun,” setting the stage for the following year’s conceptual Victorian set piece The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, which, in turn, led Davies toward a string of rock operas. A long way from “You Really Got Me.”

Kiss

No band was more tied to suburban hard rock, and the culture it represented, in the mid-’70s than Kiss. Their first six studio albums, plus 1975’s Alive!, were paragons of the style and staples of period record collections. Then disco arrived. Few artists were immune to the music’s commercial prospects and draw; Kiss, never ones to let a financial opportunity pass them by, jumped in with 1979’s Dynasty, especially its Top 20 single “I Was Made for Lovin’ You.” Two years later Kiss tested their fans again with the concept album Music From “The Elder,” their first album not to go gold.

Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin never wandered far from their origins and intentions; they didn’t get to become one of the biggest bands of the ’70s by defying their fans. But after two solid albums of British blues filtered through layers of volume, the quartet dialed back with a mostly acoustic selection of songs – and whatever “Hats Off To (Roy Harper)” is – that packed away the amps and bombast. Led Zeppelin III still sold well, making No. 1 in the U.S. and U.K., but by 1971’s fourth LP, everyone was ready for some plugged-in rock ‘n’ roll. The result was the band’s masterpiece and one of the period’s bestselling records.

John Lennon

All the Beatles were ready to move on by the end of the ’60s, but none more so than John Lennon. A week after the band’s breakup-signaling White Album in November 1968, he released the first of three collaborative albums with Yoko Ono – who became his wife between the first and second LPs – that combined found sounds, tape manipulation and general avant-garde chaos. Side-long suites of audio collages alienated most Beatles fans; Two Virgins‘ full-frontal, baring-it-all cover art guaranteed that anyone curious enough to seek it out would have their work cut out for them.

Paul McCartney

Like his former Beatles bandmates, Paul McCartney was eager to explore new music as a freshly minted solo artist. His first album, the one-man-band McCartney, was mostly comprised of studio fragments fleshed out with occasional Beatles-like melodies. For much of the ’70s, he played it safe with Wings, delivering arena pop along with the occasional curveball. But in 1980, after the dissolution of Wings, he made his second solo LP – McCartney II, of course – that tinkered even more wildly with synths, overdubs and new wave sparks. Minimalism as art, or vice versa – most fans were bewildered.

Metallica

One of the few heavy metal bands to veer from their lane, Metallica has often resisted fans’ expectations, whether targeting the mainstream with the contentious but breakthrough 1991 Metallica album or doubling down with the Load and Reload arena juggernauts. But they delivered their biggest challenge in 2011 with the Lou Reed collaboration Lulu, 87 minutes of twisted metal, spoken word and the 19-and-a-half-minute closing song “Junior Dad.” It barely dented the Top 40 and was Metallica’s first album in 20 years to not debut at No. 1.

Joni Mitchell

Court and Spark elevated Joni Mitchell from her status as a cult singer-songwriter with famous friends. The 1974 album – deliberately constructed to give her a pop hit – gave Mitchell the biggest album and single of her career while never steering her off course as a forward-moving artist. The jazz notes explored on Court and Spark were expanded on the next year’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which also touched on avant-pop and art-rock, not exactly genres contemporary Joni Mitchell fans were eager to embrace. Its relative commercial failure only invigorated her more on this path.

Nirvana

The overwhelming success of 1991’s Nevermind left Nirvana faced with possibilities and dilemmas as they headed into a follow-up LP. As torch-bearers for a new wave of rock music finding mainstream appeal, the trio was expected to record another album of catchy guitar-based songs. Brandishing their punk credentials, they wanted no part of it. So they hired Steve Albini – known for his hands-off and abrasive approach in the studio – to produce In Utero, a scars-and-all reaction to their hit. The record company, however, fearing resistance, issued some of the tracks in remixed, radio-friendly form.

Pearl Jam

From the outset, Pearl Jam set out to distance themselves from their grunge brethren – check out the continuous loops of noise that begin and end their first album. It was the earliest sign they were smarter and artier than many of their flannel-wearing contemporaries. On their third album Vitalogy, relinquishing most control to singer Eddie Vedder, they scattered experimental thoughts among the punk tributes and arena baiting. “Bugs” is an attic-cleaning spoken word and accordion duet; “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” is art-rock psychoses. It set a career template.

READ MORE: Pearl Jam Albums Ranked

Pink Floyd

Anyone listening to Pink Floyd before 1973 knew what they were in for – spacey psychedelic rock best absorbed under certain circumstances. But The Dark Side of the Moon upgraded expectations and the layers of depth in their songs. Three No. 1s over the next six years proved their commercial worth. But a four-year break after 1979’s epic-selling The Wall disappointed more than a handful of fans when a low-key sequel to that blockbuster turned out to be a 45-minute therapy session for Roger WatersThe Final Cut turned out to be just that for the hitmaking lineup: Waters left in 1985.

Radiohead

Radiohead‘s arrival during the grunge era’s preferences for guitar noise and lyrical self-loathing couldn’t have been better targeted than with “Creep.” But those expecting them to go the way of Candlebox and Sponge were no doubt taken aback by their arty, tangled makeover on their second album The Bends. By 1997’s OK Computer they were rewriting the rules of ’90s music, heading into the new century as the era’s best and most exciting band. Subsequent releases Kid A and In Rainbows have only strengthened that claim.

Lou Reed

Lou Reed rarely provided easy entryways into his music, whether with the Velvet Underground or as a solo artist. Each commercial move was countered by a detour or two that damaged any mainstream bridges he may have previously constructed. In 1975 he followed his only Top 10 album, Sally Can’t Dance, with the double LP Metal Machine Music, 64 minutes of guitar noise that was either a middle finger to his record company or fleeting fans or possibly both. He continued his ornery streak until the end: His last album before his 2013 death was the 2011 divisive Metallica collaboration, Lulu.

R.E.M.

When co-founding drummer Bill Berry left R.E.M. in 1997 after 10 albums, the question was whether or not the band would continue as a trio. 1998’s Up filed away any concerns about the pioneering alternative rock band’s future. But from the opening notes of the lead track “Airportman,” the R.E.M. heard on the album was not the jangle-rock heroes of Murmur and Reckoning or the multiplatinum pop savants of Out of Time and Automatic for the People. Rich in electronic haze and microscopically produced Smile homages, Up sounded nothing like anything in the band’s catalog at that point.

The Rolling Stones

As with many artists in the ’60s, the Rolling Stones rolled with the decade’s changes, adapting to the many styles and alterations. From their original blues-based origins, the Stones took on more intricate hues with Aftermath (1965) and Between the Buttons (1967), both close enough to natural progressions in their catalog. But with 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, they went psychedelia, and the mood didn’t always suit them. Rebounding with one of the greatest runs in rock history, the band next challenged their fans with “Emotional Rescue,” a falsetto-driven disco hit from 1980.

The Smashing Pumpkins

Having made a double-album epic in Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in 1995, Billy Corgan scaled back for the Smashing Pumpkins‘ fourth album three years later. Adore all but banished the heavy rock sound of its predecessors and replaced them with electronic introspection that reflected the turmoil Corgan and the band were going through at the time, including the loss of their drummer, relationships breaking down among the remaining members and the frontman’s divorce. As Corgan later noted, the album was made by a ”band falling apart.”

Bruce Springsteen

In 1975 Bruce Springsteen reached a then-high point in his career, releasing Born to Run, an album that got him on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, and enough artist muscle to call the shots. Sort of. A lawsuit with his manager held up his fourth album, but by 1980’s The River, he finally had a No. 1 record. A two-year wait revealed not another set of radio- and arena-ready songs but Nebraska, a haunting acoustic record centered on the exploits of a 1950s serial killer. Springsteen stripped down other times in his career, notably in 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad and 2005’s Devils & Dust.

Rod Stewart

Rod Stewart was one of the biggest acts of the ’70s, a popular touring draw as well as a consistent presence on the charts throughout the decade. In 1979, like many other veteran artists of the day, he caught the disco bug and recorded “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” a No. 1 hit that nonetheless divided many of his older fans. Stewart has made more than 30 albums, so some crossover was inevitable. His string of American Songbook albums from the ’00s returned him to the top of the U.S. chart after a two-decade break, but his foray into disco remains his most controversial move.

Talk Talk

Talk Talk was just another new wave band with a couple of likable singles when they made an abrupt switch to the more progressive end of the pop spectrum in 1986 with their third album, The Colour of Spring. But it’s with 1988’s Spirit of Eden that they made a complete break from their past. Painstakingly recorded over two years, with the band – led by Mark Hollis – performing improvisational pieces in the dark that were later stitched together as an ambient-soaked whole. Jazz, post-rock and a lean toward experimental art-pop coalesced in a work not unlike later Radiohead triumphs.

READ MORE: Bruce Springsteen Albums Ranked

U2

U2 had established their sound early on; by 1987’s The Joshua Tree, they had perfected the shimmering guitars and soul-cleansing vocals in their heaven-grazing anthems. The industrial clang that introduced “Zoo Station,” the opening track on 1991’s Achtung Baby, came from elsewhere, the sound of a band busting its image and rebuilding it anew. The ’90s were full of trials: the even more outre follow-up Zooropa from 1993 and then 1997’s glam-electronica Pop. After a few years in the wilderness, they returned to a familiar place in 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Van Halen

Hard-rock fans who followed Van Halen through five albums of guitar wizardry and the heaviest rhythm section in late-’70s California rock were thrown a surprise when greeted with a minute-long instrumental named after their sixth LP, 1984. Unlike the guitar showcase “Eruption” from their 1978 debut, the all-synthesizer ”1984″ was closer to the new wave music currently finding its way all over radio and MTV. It then bleeds immediately into “Jump,” the band’s most obvious pop song until that point. With singer David Lee Roth gone the next year, Van Halen moved further into synth-rock.

The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground’s first two albums made no compromises. Assaultive noise rock about drug dealers, junkies and prostitutes weren’t exactly popular subjects in 1967, but fans knew what they were in for with “Heroin” and the 17-minute “Sister Ray.” Not so when their third album arrived in 1969 with late-night-meditation love songs. Downplaying the aggressive guitars that lined The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White HeatThe Velvet Underground featured delicate ballads (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “Jesus”) and a whimsical sign-off sung by the band’s soft-voiced drummer.

Scott Walker

Born near Cincinnati, Scott Walker (nee Engel) became a U.K. sensation with the Walker Brothers, a Righteous Brothers-style trio best known for the operatic “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).” By 1967 he was solo, recording baroque pop covers of Jacques Brel songs. Becoming increasingly more arty as the years went on, by the mid-’90s Walker was making experimental music that often consisted of long, avant-garde pieces with no melodic center. In 2014 he made Soused, an album with American doom metal band Sunn O))), his last non-soundtrack LP before his 2019 death.

The Who

Like fellow first-wave Britpoppers the Kinks, the Who started life as a garage-beat band behind “I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation” that quickly evolved into a more ambitious outfit. They tested the waters with the nine-minute mini-opera “A Quick One, While He’s Away” as the closing track on their second album in 1966; the next year they jumped in with the album-length The Who Sell Out, a concept LP that interweaved fake radio ads among Pete Townshend‘s psychedelic pop songs. The record laid the groundwork for 1969’s career-altering Tommy, the pioneering rock opera that set a new standard.

Wilco

Assembled from the ashes of alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy‘s Wilco kept the flame burning on their 1995 debut, A.M. But within a few years they began adding bigger conceptual themes (Being There) and meticulously crafted power pop (Summerteeth) to their music. By 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – a record so unlike their previous ones that their record company rejected it – any trace of lap steel and banjo had all but disappeared. Coated in static, found sound and lyrics bordering on oblique, the album launched a new phase for Wilco as avant-garde experimentalists.

Neil Young

Neil Young has made a career of defying expectations, so much so that his record company sued him in the ’80s for making albums that didn’t sound like Neil Young albums. In 1974 he followed up the No. 1 Harvest with the anti-HarvestOn the Beach - eight melancholic songs about depression, addiction and running away from fame. But with 1982’s Trans he dared his most faithful fans to keep up. Synth-pop songs with vocoder were the last thing Young devotees wanted from their guitar hero, who doubled down next with a rockabilly record and then a mostly ignored country album.

ZZ Top

ZZ Top‘s transformation into MTV and radio hitmakers wasn’t so drastic that it turned off fans of the veteran Texas boogie band. Quite the opposite: Following the release of 1983’s Eliminator, they were never bigger. But the initial shock of synthesizers and dance rhythms floored purists expecting another round of John Lee Hooker-inspired “a-haw haw haw-haw” from the two-thirds bearded trio. “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” were all hits, especially on the growing music television network that gave much airtime to the suddenly red-hot thirtysomething pop stars.

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When you’ve been around as long as he has, there’s bound to be a few misfires in the catalog. 

Gallery Credit: Michael Gallucci

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