For the most part, art-rock is an undocumented musical niche. A small fragment under the oversized umbrella of rock, that exists as a translucent concept in people’s minds rather than behind a line in the sand.
Today art-rock is a fairly generic term that often gets employed interchangeably with progressive rock, though for me the distinction is clear.
Progressive rock is a more narrow concept. While no less creative, prog-rock derives from a primarily British movement that developed out of the psychedelic rock of the early ’60s and ’70s. These groups often incorporated elements of jazz and classical into their sound, with a heavy focus on guitar acuity. Above all, these groups that begun with King Crimson, pertain to a certain atmospheric quality defined by virtuosic guitar interplay, odd time signatures, and complex compositions.
Art-rock, on the other hand, most likely originated from early bands like The Velvet Underground and the New York art scene. At this time rock and art were inextricably entwined allowing an altered sonic aesthetic which pervaded albums as a whole. An entire work of art.
At its nucleus, art-rock aspires to elevate rock from entertainment to artistic statement, adopting a more experimental and conceptual outlook on musical expression.
As a result, art-rock embraces a modernist approach to music that favours dense, enveloping sonic landscapes above sheer virtuosity. These complex textures and arrangements allow for a more intellectually interesting experience that deviates from traditional pop frameworks for mass consumption.
To sum it up in a sentence, art-rock is defined by its textures, soundscapes, inventive instrumentation, an embrace of electronica, and elements of the avant-garde.
So without further adieu, here are 10 defining art-rock albums to introduce you to ‘the scene’.
Step into the elusive world of art-rock. These 10 albums pushed the conventions of rock music into entirely new sonic territories.
10. Radiohead – In Rainbows
The approach of minimalism here is what drives Radiohead’s 2007 masterwork. In Rainbows still feels like an incredibly modern album with colourful production and a scientific approach to layering that is awe-inspiring.
From the electronic, skipping beats of 15 Step to the structured ambient soundscapes of Wierd Fishes, Radiohead defined a new era of art-rock.
9. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Undoubtedly one of the best albums of the last decade, Arcade Fire made an unapologetically grand statement on their third album. The rich production, creative escapism, and classical instrumentation make it an uplifting record to behold.
The haunting ghosts of sound that whip around over martial beats create a blazing experience from start to finish. This is a bigger, more byzantine Arcade Fire than their previous records and it absolutely paid off.
8. Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure
Roxy Music’s second album is an art-pop, glam-rock masterpiece. The last entry before Eno set out on his solo career and eternal sound quest, Roxy Music sketched out blueprints for the future of trance, experimental pop and Brian Eno.
With plenty of space for Eno’s deviations, tracks like Bogus Man and bookend, For Your Pleasure, meld R&B with high fashion fantasies and avant-garde stylings. However, as Brian and Bryan took off into deep sound space it became clear they were incompatible. Three months after its release Eno left before he could be fired and begun an unparalleled solo career.
7. The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground & Nico
A progenitor to the modern art-rock movement, The Velvet Underground’s debut is an album worthy of the hype. It’s primal and artistic. It’s simple and it’s avant-garde. Nico’s songs are poppy yet dark. Her voice is strange but beautiful.
This approach of minimalism is still a lodestone for attempts at art-rock today. John Cale’s violin playing is a good example of this album’s influence in the wider art-rock and baroque pop schematics.
Venus In Furs and Heroin, on which Lou Reed sings, became some of the most moving songs of the decade and inadvertently laid the blueprints for art-rock everywhere.
6. Talking Heads – Remain In Light
An unreputed art-rock masterpiece, David Byrne combined afrobeat and funk-jazz to craft a challenging yet overwhelmingly enjoyable listen. Experimenting with polyrhythms, obtuse lyrics, and general strangeness, Remain In Light has been able to retain a sense of unfamiliarity throughout the years.
Talking Heads redefined the scope of art-rock and toed the line between challenging freak music and pop. Imagine a more avant-garde Fela Kuti and this is what you’d get. A visceral thrill of colours, sounds, strange, and art.
5. Kate Bush – Hounds Of Love
With her self-produced fifth album, Kate Bush embraced the possibilities of digital sampling synthesizers and studio technique becoming a total auteur. Despite navigating this new territory Bush never lost lyrical potency of her words, becoming one of the most musically serious artists of her time.
Hounds Of Love was Bush’s big push into American charts with album opener Running Up That Hill becoming a hit. Surprisingly it was no less complex in form and imagery than The Dreaming, which was roundly criticised for being too ambitious. The album opener even lifts a line of dialogue from Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon.
4. Tom Waits – Swordfishfrombones
In 1982, Tom Waits met his future wife Kathleen Brennan who quickly convinced him to embrace his desires for more outsider musical excursions. Waits’ went a little deeper down the rabbit hole than expected however, abandoning his beat poet persona for something a whole lot stranger.
The beginning of an album trilogy, this transformation produced some of Waits’ best work. Gone are the ballads, jazz piano, and loveable storytelling. Swordfishtrombones is a creatively daring album confirming Waits’ place as a reigning cult outsider.
3. Björk – Post
Björk’s sophomore album leaned more heavily into art-rock and further away from her gothy post-punk origins in KUKL. Here Björk expresses an affinity with the vast nature of glaciers of Iceland and a deep love of music.
Her uncanny expression of sound and explosive wails sail through the currents till they hit your ears like a confusing puzzle of joy. Embracing these bionic foundations Björk set the framework for one of the most artful careers in pop history.
2. Gorillaz – Demon Days
Far more than just a rock star’s novelty side project, Gorillaz was a triumph of incredible proportions and cemented Damon Albarn as one of modern music’s most creative minds. Albarn more or less faded into obscurity after blur and the uncovering of his identity as the spearhead of Gorillaz was one of the biggest reveals in music.
Thought Feel Good Inc. is an undying hit in every sense, the rest of the album is dark, mysterious, and wholly unique in instrumentation.
1. Radiohead – Kid A
Radiohead’s famous diversion from generic rock aesthetic after the gigantically successful OK Computer is a high mark for the genre and capabilities of art-rock. Is it overrated? Yes. However, it’s still an extremely bold move for the outfit and it paid off in spades, instantly making them the most important and hard to define rock band in the world.
As they almost entirely put down the guitars after three albums, Thom Yorke encouraged the band to embrace drum machines, synthesizers, and sound processors as they heavily divulged into electronic territory.
The songwriting is cryptic, the emotion is deep, and the outcome is hard to define, though it’s an album that is every bit worthy of your praise. Kid A set a new benchmark for modern art-rock and it’s as simple as that. Witness the biggest left turn in music history.