Eight Shifts in Musical Style That Worked

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Evolution is a natural phenomenon, one that applies to music as well as biology. Unless you’re as ultra-consistent as AC/DC or the Foo Fighters, it’s pretty common for a band to somewhat change its style over time—for better or worse. Here are eight, who like a fine wine, got better with time, thanks in part to a huge stylistic progression.

8. Pantera

Regardless of your feelings on these “rednecks from hell,” Pantera did what few hair-metal bands from the ‘80s managed to do: stay relevant in the ‘90s. Originally as glammed-up as any ‘80s pop-metal act (guitarist Dimebag Darrell and bassist Rex Brown even went by “Diamond Darrell” and “Rexx Rocker”), they were led by singer Terry Glaze for the first several albums of their career. Toward the end of the ‘80s, Glaze departed and singer Phil Anselmo joined the fold, bringing about a seismic shift from glam-metal to a new, groove-oriented style of metal. This much more real, honest and relentlessly heavy configuration essentially turned Pantera into a new band, and the members went on to essentially disown their first four albums.

7. Depeche Mode

Often nicknamed “Depress Mode,” these dark electro-pop Brits were at one point a New Wave bubblegum-pop band driven by keyboardist Vince Clarke and achieved recognition with the early-’80s single “Just Can’t Get Enough.” When Clarke quickly departed to form Erasure after just one album, the remaining members of Depeche Mode soldiered on, with guitarist Martin Gore emerging as the dominant songwriter. Under Gore’s leadership, the band carved out a much darker, more theatrical style of dance-pop far removed from the playfulness of their debut. 1990’s Violator, driven by singles “Enjoy the Silence,” “Personal Jesus” and “Policy of Truth,” is by far the most successful album of their career and brought them worldwide popularity.

6. Björk

Björk, being Björk, has always had one foot firmly planted in art music — well, aside from her debut album in 1977, which was more traditional pop, but hey, she was 11, so you can’t really blame her. Her real career began as a singer in the guitar-oriented avant-pop group The Sugarcubes, but her subsequent solo work, which spanned dance, classical, jazz and ambient music and focused on her distinctive, unusual voice, far eclipsed her old band’s popularity and brought her worldwide critical acclaim.

5. Damon Albarn

If you’d told people the guy behind Blur’s “Song 2” (better known to Americans as the “woo hoo!” song) would, not a decade later, be the driving force behind the boundary-pushing “virtual band” Gorillaz, they would have scoffed at you. Yet Damon Albarn has pulled this 180º off flawlessly, sounding more at home when helming and producing Gorillaz’ edgy fusions of hip-hop and electronica than he did singing over Britpop.

4. Talk Talk

Britain’s Talk Talk’s transition from single-driven synthpop band to the progenitors of post-rock in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s is truly remarkable. Talk Talk weren’t just some unsuccessful new wave act, either: Songs like “It’s My Life” and “Life’s What You Make It” were international smash hits that brought them worldwide success. But leader Mark Hollis soon began charting a new direction, stripping away the synthesizers in favor of more acoustic instrumentation and experimenting with elements of jazz, classical and ambient music for their final two albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock.

3. The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips spent their first decade playing noisy punk rock-oriented music heavy on distortion, but a few strange stylistic flourishes indicated the seeds of something wilder were being sown. After the relative failed experiment Zaireeka, the Flaming Lips returned with The Soft Bulletin, which sported a lush, heavily orchestrated sound miles away from their raw, punk-inspired roots. The grandiose psychedelia contained on The Soft Bulletin went on to establish them as a critical success, color most of their later work and inspire their increasingly elaborate live shows.

2. Radiohead

It’s hard to think of another modern band who’s evolved as dramatically as Radiohead. Once the darlings of the Britpop scene — and even lauded as the saviors of rock ‘n’ roll — lead singer Thom Yorke shied away from the arena-size fame clearly within their grasp and decided to do something completely different. While OK Computer is still considered a milestone in alternative rock, retaining their early melodic song structures but beginning to show more atmospheric influences, it was with Kid A that the band reached its evolutionary watershed: The album touched on a variety of genres such as jazz, krautrock and electronica and featured more abstract, ambiguous song structures. Though they alienated a lot of old fans, they also gained plenty of new ones.

1. The Beatles

The mother of them all, The Beatles set the standard for sonic evolution as a band. Not only were they one of the first groups in rock music history to radically evolve their sound, but it only took them about five years to do it. Starting out as a skiffle-influenced ‘60s pop band, a combination of the social upheaval of the late 1960s, manager Brian Epstein’s death and experimentation with drugs led them to explore a multitude of genres and new studio technologies, in the process helping pioneer psychedelic rock.