Arts and Entertainment

11 Genre Bending and Culturally Significant Songs



Songs That Keep the World Moving

It can be hard to try to put yourself into the perspective of someone who was alive during the times where music fundamentally changed the public eye’s outlook on the idea of “genre” in music. Music is subjective, and whether the listener likes or hates the music, that listener also has to accept the idea that some compositions might turn a new leaf for that specific sound. Today we are going to be diving into the top 10 songs that have shifted the future of sound. We’ve tried to compile here a list of songs that are both culturally significant and genre-bending. 

1. “This Must be the Place (Naïve Melody)”, The Talking Heads (1983)

David Byrne and his rag-tag group named The Talking Heads took the 80’s by storm, integrating pop, synth wave, new wave, rock and funk all into one conglomerate. From the start it was apparent that lead singer Byrne had an acute vision for the bands’ look and feel. The post-Cold-War song added a sentiment to the world that curated a soundscape for the simple idea of living in the moment and enjoying being alive. “The song was created through “truly naive” experimentation with different instruments,” bassist Tina Weymouth admits. “I don’t think I’ve ever done a real love song before. Mine always had a sort of reservation, or a twist. I tried to write one that wasn’t corny, that didn’t sound stupid or lame the way many do. I think I succeeded; I was pretty happy with that.” Byrne, concurs, taking pride in the simplistic oddities that went into the “essential feel good song for anyone’s playlist.” The Talking Heads have taken their place in the history of boundary breaking sound experimentation through addictive groove and truthful metaphors that can be found in their lyrics.

2. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, The Beatles (1969)

In the Midst of a war-torn United States, The Beatles released Abbey Road, the single handedly most controversial infusion of pop, rock, folk blues, and a tinge of country all in one album. The world was a dark place during the reign of the beatles. The Vietnam war, the resignation of president Nixon, and worldly confusion curated a place for musical exploration, falling at the feet of The Beatles. Maxwell’s silver hammer was a playground for that confusion. With ramming drums that carry lyrics of casual murder from the fictional Maxwell holds the truth of confusion during this time in the world. The song pulls at the melodic, loving instrumentals but toys with the scary undertones of the issues the world was dealing with. Happiness surface level carries the low toned lyrics, conveying a soothing image for dark happenings. It was evident the song carried controversy not just for the world but for The Beatles themselves. “If any single recording shows why The Beatles broke up, it is ‘Maxwell’s silver hammer.’ -Ian McDonald

“Sometimes Paul would make us do these really fruity songs. I mean, my god, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ was so fruity. After a while we did a good job on it, but when Paul got an idea or an arrangement in his head…” – George Harrison

3. “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Queen (1975)

Freddie Mercury began writing the song while he was a student at Ealing Art College. Queen guitarist Brian Mays remembers Mercury writing song ideas on scraps of paper and combining them. “I remember Freddie coming in with loads of bits of paper from his dad’s work, like post-it notes, and pounding on the piano,” May said in 2008. “He played the piano like most people play the drums. And this song he had was full of gaps where he explained that something operatic would happen here and so on. He’d worked out the harmonies in his head.” When he was finished he had written enough for 3 whole songs but wanted to combine them to make one long creation. The song ended up being about 6 minutes long and because of this radio executives initially refused to play it. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was completely different from anything anyone had heard before.

4. “Around the World”, Daft Punk (1997)

“Around the World” by Daft Punk is known for its only lyrics being “around the world”. In fact, it is said 144 times in the album version. It was released in 1997 off the album Homework but was released as a single earlier that same year. It became a major hit all around the world and hit #1 on the dance charts. The French duo combines elements of house music with funk, techno, disco, rock and synth-pop. The track is a perfect example of the duos’ sound which has help shape the electronic music sound that is becoming more and more popular today. The 22 year old album is said to have changed dance music forever. The album was recorded at their home studio which lead to the name of Homework

5.   “Trevere”, Miles Davis (1974)

A five-minute Miles Davis track in the 1970’s? Impressive, considering most of his catalogue after 1968’s Miles in the Sky consisted mostly of (but not exclusively) acidic dirges that well exceed the 20-minute mark. It was at this time in the mid to late 60’s where Davis, and what seems like most other prominent musicians, began to tinker with and push sonic boundaries in a way unlike any other musical movements that came before. The length of this epic track is not what makes it special, but it serves as a window into the 1974 album Big Fun, which is otherwise populated with thick fusion arrangements taken from the earlier Bitches Brew (1970) sessions.

The piercing trumpet melody that soars over those three epic chords that weave themselves through the scattered auxiliary percussion and distorted organ is the grounding force in Trevere. Harmonically simple in comparison with the rest of the song, and quite uplifting, this motif reflects a pattern seen throughout the rest of Big Fun, as well as Davis’s other fusion works in this era. Clattering African and Indian percussion, shifting organs that provide harmonic padding, looping bass-lines, deadly kit playing (from Jack DeJohnette), and ominous trumpet melodies, speaking from places unknown and primordial that Miles conjures up with ease. But with all this calamity, we get lowered into a comfortable place that is at once unrecognizable and sublime. Trevere is a small taste of that fusion era Davis style. Try it if you dare, and enjoy the rest of your journey through the psyche of the man with the horn.

6. “Heroes and Villains”, The Beach Boys (1967)

The opening track from the 1967 Album Smiley Smile serves as a jarring welcome to a film in miniature. But this film doesn’t have a plot or any real characters. It works off imagery that is up to the listener to produce in their mind’s eye. Don’t the instruments and tonality predict a backdrop to the scene Brian Wilson describes for us?

The history of the album Smiley Smile is elusive. It fuels the esotericism and myth of the music, which seems to inhabit that classic narrative of a place that is lost in time, unreachable and unknowable to people living now. Singer and principal songwriter Brian Wilson suffered a panic attack in 1964 after a performance with ‘The Beach Boys’. This hindered his abilities to perform, but it led to unbridled creativity that radically changed the direction of the group. Since Wilson was unable to play shows, he could focus on recording and writing his visionary music. In 1965 Wilson started using cannabis and other hallucinogenic drugs as creative tools which resulted in rich, symphonic arrangements and introspective lyricism. His first-time using acid was described by him as a “deeply religious experience”, but he would suffer auditory hallucinations a week later. These hallucinations would persist throughout his life, later being diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder.   

 1966 saw the release of Pet Sounds, now critically hailed and seen as highly influential but then considered a deviation from the expected ‘Beach Boys’ formula of “girls and surfing”. This album took the concept of a rock symphony and made it into a genre of its own. It’s a beautiful album that has a place in anyone’s record collection or playlist. The sessions that came from its recording, however, are where we will find the roots of Heroes and Villains

Post-1966 ‘Beach Boys’ went from the darlings of Capitol Records to the antithesis of commercially viable. The Pet Sounds sessions were littered with woozy outtakes of sound collages and freaky tape edits that would turn into Smiley Smile. Unfortunately, Brian Wilson’s mental health decline and drug use contributed to these bizarre songs. The 1967 follow up to Pet Sounds was considered incomplete (Smiley Smile was released anyway) and the “definitive” version intended for market release was finally dropped in 2011 (this version is linked in the title). The album includes samples of vegetables being chewed and played like instruments, an entire prelude titled Fire, where all the studio musicians were required to wear fireman’s hats by Wilson (who provided smoke and assorted whistles/percussion instruments), plenty of lush vocal harmonies in the typical Boys’ style, and lyrical themes of spiritual awakening and the journey from childhood to adulthood. This last theme is very apparent when listening, but we also get the sense that something is very wrong. It’s like Heroes and Villains, the opener, serves as a warning to the operatic and cartoonish odyssey we will take. (definitive version)

7. “Aquemini”, OutKast (1998)

Andre Lauren Benjamin and Antwan André Patton, also known as Andre3000 and Big Boi are two rappers from the so-called dirty south of East Point Georgia. Formerly known as ‘OutKast’, the rap group stapled themselves on the front page of hip hop, rap and R&B for the written novel of 1990s music. ‘OutKast’s’ third album Aquemini was released on September 29, 1998. It was certified double platinum and reached the number-two position on the Billboard 200 album chart in the United States; its title was a combination of the zodiac signs of Big Boi (an Aquarius) and André (a Gemini). Even if you’ve honestly never heard Andre 3000 or Big Boi’s voice on a song, you’ve still heard them. You might ask how, and the answer is through their influence on artists. The consequence of cadence is that people can, and will mimic you through the years. It’s proven through ‘OutKast’ by the likeness of Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and other more recently famous hip hop staples that have twisted ‘OutKast’s’ style in to their own, paying homage, as well as adding to the infamy. 

“My mind warps and bends, floats the wind, count to ten

Meet the twin—André Ben, welcome to the lion’s den

Original skin, many men comprehend

I extend myself so you go out and tell a friend

Sin all depends on what you believing in

Faith is what you make it—that’s the hardest sh*t since MC Ren

Alien can blend right on in with your kin

Look again, ’cause I swear I spot one every now and then

It’s happening again, wish I could tell you when

André, this is André, y’all are just gon’ have to make amends”

This verse well over proves the ongoing mysteries behind the lyrics, with Andre making a satirical confession that in his time, seeing the things that he has seen in his life, might spot a fake friend even in his close knit group of affiliates.  The last verse of this rhyme scheme ties in the fact that Andre, at the time of writing this song may have been fighting a larger battle in his head… with himself. “Making amends” hints to the listener that he may be facing his own demons and that line in itself is him trying to reconcile with his inner psyche. The dynamic duo will go down in the history of rap as the inventors of the “dirty southern infused boom -bap soul -trap.”  

8. Gymnopédie No. 1″, Erik Satie (1888)

Jazz, lounge music, or proto-ambient? All these labels could be appropriate for the moody, obscure piece written at the turn of the 20th century by Frenchman Erik Satie. In his time, he lived an eccentric and reclusive life. He would usually wake up at pre-dawn hours to start his days which he spent musing, writing, eating very little, fencing, and riding horses. He was a member of several guilds and clubs, like the Rosicrucian movement. He even becoming the patron saint for a group of composers called “Les Six”. 

Satie was heavily involved in the Dadaist and Surrealist movements that had swept through France at the time. The hallmark of these new forms of creating art (which would quickly touch the rest of continental Europe and the United States) is a disregard for traditional or conventional structure. Gymnopédie No. 1 may sound to the modern ear like a standard romantic era piano piece, right along with Debussy and Chopin, but the cadenza rhythm and tonality tell a different story. This isn’t a grandiose archetypal hero story in the style of Debussy (who was a close friend to Satie). Gymnopédie No. 1 is the longing and somewhat distressing background noise of an odd man who did not fashion himself a musician, but rather a phonometrician. He defined this as someone who measures and writes down sound. He also liked the term ‘furniture music’ to describe his works. The cubist approach Satie took in writing this piece is evident with the linear, simple structure. He wrote two other pieces titled Gymnopédie (No. 2 and No. 3, respectively) with very similar melodies and motifs, but in different keys. 

Erik Satie saw little success in his lifetime, but like many eccentric artists he gained more recognition after his death in 1925. His influence on French avant-garde music and writing spilled over into painting as well as the new medium of film. Neoclassicism, a broad form of art and music which appropriates themes from the 18th century, has Satie to thank as well. Despite his disregard for traditional tonality and anything Wagnerian, the neoclassical movement that arose in the 20th century was partly inspired by the simplicity and structure Satie demonstrates in Gymnopédie No. 1. As I listen to these now while drifting from task to task, I feel like I’m doing him some justice. He was a café pianist after all, transplanting music for hours to an unknowing audience. His presence is there, but it’s not demanding my attention. I’ll tune in occasionally and find some comfort in those sparse key presses. 

9. “Doin’ Time” – Sublime (1996)

‘Doin’ Time’ by sublime is a song about dating  an unfaithful woman who makes them feel like they’re locked behind bars. Some think the girl in the song could be a representation of heroin. It uses a sampled hip hop drum beat with a jazz marimba and takes the melody of George Gershwin’s original ‘Summertime’. In order for them to clear the Gershwin sample they had to change the original lyric of ‘doin’ time’ to ‘summertime’. The song has recently made a comeback because pop artist Lana Del Rey covered the song on her most recent album. The band stopped making music when the lead singer, Bradley Nowell, passed away of a heroin overdose but the content of their music is still very relevant today. In 2009 They tried to bring the band back with a new singer but, Nowell’s family sued them for performing as Sublime so they went by Sublime with Rome. They basically created the ska-punk sound which has changed music forever.

10.  “Lithium”, Nirvana (1991)

Nirvana’s song, Lithium, is about a man whose spouse died and turned to religion to relieve himself from manic depression. The title references Karl Marx’s quote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” It makes sense, as people tend to turn to religion for what some may consider a sense of empty comfort. The man in the song’s choice to turn to religion is believed to be seen as an attempt to find something to ground him to keep living and avoid suicide for the sake of his lost wife. The constant repetition of the line, “I’m not gonna crack” suggest that the man is going insane. The lines, “I’m so ugly, that’s okay, cause so are you – we broke our mirrors” analyzes a sense of Cobain’s personal life. He never saw himself in a positive light, and only ever liked one picture of him. (see above) It was said that he kept it in his wallet for quite some time, as he was proud to have a picture that he felt confident in. 

11. “Undone”, Weezer (1994)

Weezer’s famous “Undone”, more commonly known and referred to as ‘The Sweater Song’, reached number 6 on the charts in 1994 and continues to be played and loved on the radio today. In the beginning of the song, a conversation with a fan of the band, Karl Koch, and first bassist, Matt Sharp, set an easygoing tone to the overall song. Nothing seems out of place at first, but the next few lines suggest that the songwriter, and lead singer of Weezer, Rivers Cuomo, is a shy person with little confidence with himself and his ability to perform/speak to others. He gives himself a sort of “pep talk” to ease his anxiety, although it is thought to make little sense. Years later after writing the song, Cuomo stated that that he unknowingly “ripped off Metallica’s Welcome home (Sanitarium) from 1986”. After listening to the songs back-to-back, the similarities in the bass-line make it seem like it was stolen, but it was believed to be a subconscious mistake. 

By: Mitchell Bruns, George Kunkel, Audrey Penrod, and Noah Riddle, Activist Writers

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