10 ‘Challenging’ Artists Worth the Effort
As a music geek, you know the artists you don't love sometimes turn out to be your favorites after repeated listening. We're all creatures of habit whose earliest musical memories lay in the simple nursery rhymes our parents read to us. Who can blame someone for not "getting it" the first time they're hit with one of John Zorn's skronk-jazz freakouts? It can take weeks, even years, but some of the most rewarding music in your collection probably needed some extra attention to fully absorb. With that in mind, here are 10 Challenging Artists Worth the Effort.
Guitarist, composer, vocalist, lyricist, music impresario, film director, political activist … Frank Zappa got a lot in during his life. Zappa’s left-of-center songwriting approach incorporated everything from jazz and bebop to avant-garde classical music and what seemed like million other subgenres in between. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, the Maryland native was always known as a “musician’s musician,” a commercial kiss of death if there ever was one. That said, it’s easy to feel Zappa’s irreverent presence in the music of groups like the Melvins and Mr. Bungle.
You would be hard-pressed to find a musical career as diverse as Scott Walker has had. As a member of The Walker Brothers, the Ohio native (born Noel Scott Engel) became a ‘60s teen idol in England on the back of the group’s chart-topping MOR singles. After the trio split up in ’67, Walker began his solo career. On his first few albums, he pursued styles as disparate as baroque pop, Las Vegas-style crooner fare and the French chanson of Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. Beginning with ‘84’s ‘Climate of Hunter,’ Walker’s output has gotten more experimental with each album, alienating fans of his earlier work while earning rave reviews from forward-thinking music critics.
Since appearing on the music scene as the keyboardist for glam rock pioneers Roxy Music, Brian Eno has had a Forrest Gump-like career, appearing during some of pop music’s game changing moments. Not only is the 65-year-old credited with creating what became known as ambient music, but his production work on seminal albums by Talking Heads, U2 and Devo, as well as his more recent collaborations with Coldplay, also helped cement his iconic reputation. His ambient work and collaborations with the likes of David Byrne and John Cale have been too cerebral for most casual music fans, but there’s no denying Eno has also helped shape the sound of modern music.
Speaking of Eno, in a 1982 interview, he famously said that while the first Velvet Underground album may have sold only 30,000 copies during its initial run in 1967, "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." Managed by Andy Warhol, the Velvets had an ever-changing sound that shifted from pristine pop (‘Sunday Morning’) to stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll (‘I’m Waiting for the Man’) to droning, experimental art-rock (‘Venus in Furs’) -- and that was just on their aforementioned debut.
In 1977, citing the Velvet Underground and other experimentally minded artists such as Can and Captain Beefheart as influences, former dockworker Mark E. Smith formed the Fall in Manchester, England. Like many of the musicians that inspired them, the Fall’s style is hard to pin down: angular and dissonant one moment and then sloppy garage rock the next. Despite Smith’s inability to keep a steady lineup of the Fall together throughout the group’s long and prolific career (30 albums so far!), his witty, acerbic and utterly singular songwriting voice has helped shape the post-punk movement.
When a band is labeled “noise-rock,” you can pretty much bet they aren’t making music aimed for the soccer-mom set. Formed in Austin, Texas, before settling down in Chicago’s vibrant scene circa 1989, the Jesus Lizard – along with Helmet and Unsane – became synonymous with the noise-rock movement during the ‘90s. The band’s abrasive guitars, chugging rhythms and sometimes blues-informed vocal lines helped paved the way for everyone from Hot Snakes to Big Business years later.
The most enigmatic songwriter on our list, Leonard Cohen is known for his hyper-literate lyrics and unique singing style -- qualities that might have made him a critical darling from the beginning of his musical career in the ‘60s but never brought him the kind of mainstream success he deserved. But the story doesn’t end there, since Cohen has enjoyed the kind of late-career resurgence fit for a Hollywood movie. Beginning with Jeff Buckley’s stirring cover of the Canadian songsmith’s ‘Hallelujah’ (itself inspired by John Cale’s 1991 take on the song), the once forgotten 1984 album cut has gone on to become a modern standard, inspiring more than 300 cover versions and a book on its success in the process. After years of self-imposed recording exile, Cohen has kept busy in the last decade, touring throughout the world to packed houses and finally gaining the widespread acceptance that eluded him for so long.
For decades, Public Image Ltd. have caused headaches for indie record store clerks tasked with categorizing the stock. Fronted by former Sex Pistols troublemaker John Lydon, PiL have dabbled in countless styles, including reggae, prog, dub, noise-rock and funk. PiL don’t make records for Beyonce fans, but we bet Flea from the Chili Peppers can throw down every bass line on 1979’s ‘Metal Box’ album at a moment’s notice.
Few singer-songwriters have a songbook as celebrated as Patti Smith’s. The unofficial poet laureate of the NYC punk movement of the ‘70s, Smith wasn’t blessed with a classic pop singing voice, but her ‘Horses’ (1975) and ‘Easter’ (1978) albums have found their way into the hands of countless would-be songwriters.
We finish out our list of challenging bands with perhaps its most important entry: Kraftwerk. Like the Beatles and Beach Boys before them, Kraftwerk helped invent entire musical subgenres. The German band’s electronic sound served as the blueprint to synth-pop, Latin freestyle and producer Afrika Bambaataa’s early hip-hop explorations. Kraftwerk’s synthesizer-driven “robot pop” is another one of those cases where the artist’s influence far outreached its commercial achievements.