There’s a certain level of expectation that comes with bands releasing new albums. For the majority of recording artists, inspiration doesn’t come overnight, and the songs which appear on one album don’t just happen to be the first few tracks they wrote after completing their last release. Most bands will write twenty or thirty new songs, work on them, whittle them down, and do their best to present their fans with the best new output they have to offer. After that, they tour the music, and hope that the critics will be kind.
Making a new album is something of a balancing act for musicians. If the sound is too close to whatever they’ve previously released, people will accuse them of playing safe and failing to progress. If it’s too sharp a departure from what’s gone on before, they run the risk of alienating their existing fan base. Many bands have pushed things too far in the search for a new sound, whereas others have effortlessly cast off their own history and redefined both themselves, and the music that we’ve come to expect from them. Here are five albums that completely surprised the world of music when they appeared. We’re not saying they were better or worse than what came before or after – they just weren’t what we thought we were going to get!
Nirvana – In Utero
It’s not exactly a secret that Kurt Cobain wasn’t thrilled with the commercial success of ‘Nevermind,’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in particular. In a number of interviews, he stated that he thought the production was too clean and polished, going so far as to call it ‘lame.‘ He was completely unprepared for the level of fame that the album brought him and the rest of the band, and in truth never truly recovered from the shock of the exposure. He found that fame made him miserable, and shrunk away from the spotlight. Before long, the band was refusing to play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at live gigs at all.
In Utero was designed to be almost unlistenable to the kind of audience who liked ‘Nevermind,’ but didn’t like its predecessor ‘Bleach.’ ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ was a direct answer to the record company executives who wanted him to carry on writing more of the same, and the darker production and lyrical themes were intended to be troubling and inaccessible. There are many Nirvana fans who feel that ‘In Utero’ is a truer representation of the band’s work, and also of Cobain’s vision. It sadly didn’t quell Cobain’s general unhappiness, but it did at least allow him the chance to offer us a more sincere artistic expression of his music before he left us.
Metallica – The Black Album
With the exception of their first four albums, it sometimes feels like Metallica have courted controversy every time they’ve released something new. The controversy around their 2003 album ‘St. Anger’ has been written about to the point of exhaustion by many commentators, but anyone who thought that was a sudden, sharp shock simply hadn’t been paying attention to the bad’s previous work. St. Anger wasn’t the first change of style from Metallica. ‘The Black Album’ was.
If you weren’t aware of Metallica’s past life, then you might wonder why ‘The Black Album’ – which is actually just called ‘Metallica’ – is considered controversial at all. After all, it has ‘Enter Sandman,’ Nothing Else Matters,’ and ‘The Unforgiven’ on it. It’s an album that really put them on the mainstream map. For long term fans, that’s what the issue is. This is an accessible, mainstream rock metal album from a band who’d previously only made thrash metal, and in their eyes, it was the band selling out. The band never looked back, but some of their old fans never gave them another look either.
Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Just the name of this album alone is a clue that something unusual might have been happening with the British band’s sound since they released their smash hit album ‘AM.’ The previous album had been full of catchy pop rock, with songs like ‘Do I Wanna Know’ and ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When Your High?’ helping them reclaim the status they’d first enjoyed when they released their debut album ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ in 2006.
Anyone expecting more of their same from the follow up was sorely disappointed. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ is a concept album set on a moonbase, and the sounds on it, as the name suggests, wouldn’t sound out of place as the background music in a casino. It’s gentle, it’s ambient, it’s quiet, and it’s understated. It’s everything that ‘AM’ wasn’t. In truth, there’s plenty of music you’ll hear in the background of games at online casinos or handy index site such as sistersite.co.uk that has more life in it than the majority of the tracks on this album, and the casino games at those websites would be considered more entertaining by quite a lot of fans. Some people loved this album dearly. Others wondered what had happened to their favorite band.
Radiohead – Kid A
The name of Radiohead gets brought up every time a band is considered to become self-indulgent and too far removed from their previous style to appeal to their own fans, and Kid A was the first sign that Thom Yorke and his bandmates were starting to become a little pretentious. Gone where the accessible and immediate rock sounds of hits like ‘Creep,’ ‘Just,’ and ‘High’ and Dry.’ In their place was something far less melodic, far less radio friendly, and much more challenging.
None of this I say that Kid A isn’t a great album – compared to more recent examples which appear to be composed of nothing but pianos, harps, and Yorke wailing in a dog-whistle pitch, it’s possibly pedestrian. ‘How To Disappear Completely’ is hauntingly beautiful, but it’s no stadium rock song. Radiohead had divorced themselves from their past sound, and Kid A was their notice of intent.
Smashing Pumpkins – Adore
Billy Corgan wasn’t shy about advertising ‘Adore’ as being somewhat different from their epic double album ‘Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness.“ He gave interviews in which he declared that rock music was dead, and that people would be dancing on its grave to the sounds of the new Smashing Pumpkins album ‘Adore.’ He was wrong, but he did at least make an interesting album which is probably better received now than it was when it was first released in 1998.
‘Adore’ was all about the gentle and mournful of ‘Perfect,’ and the pounding insistence of ‘Ava Adore,’ with the hard rock of ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ thrown out of the window. In experimenting with electronic sounds, Corgan and company were arguably ten years ahead of their time. They didn’t get the love from it that they wanted, and by the time of their next album, they were making hard rock again.