One of the criteria to be among my favourite bands, musicians, acts, etc. is for you to be difficult to pin down. I like artists to try new or different things or at least to show some sort of progression of their sound over time.
I suppose we can thank/blame The Beatles for this. No matter what song comes to mind for you personally when someone says ‘Beatles,’ there are scads more which are nothing like it at all. If you say Hey Jude, I could counter with Dig it. Drive My Car vs. Flying. Revolution vs. Revolution 9. Honey Pie vs. Wild Honey Pie.
Sometimes, artists have the odd song which is wildly outside what you’d consider their “sound,” but ends up being their biggest hit. Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) by Pink Floyd is a pretty decent example of this. But what I’m looking for here are songs that are whack. Songs where some people might not be able to guess the artist.
The Police’s last studio album, 1983’s Synchronicity, has both their biggest hit and their most unusual song. The former is, of course, Every Breath You Take and the latter is Andy Summers’ awesome Mother. One of my favourites:
Another good one is Free Form Guitar from Chicago’s 1969 debut album Chicago Transit Authority. At the time, guitarist/vocalist Terry Kath was essentially the group’s leader and this unconventional, instrumental guitar solo demonstrates his ability to convey something beyond tunefulness with his instrument — for seven minutes:
Van Halen’s 1982 album Diver Down stands apart from everything else from those David Lee Roth years. It has two instrumentals and five covers. To this day the transition from Intruder to (Oh) Pretty Woman is one of the most uplifting and excellent moments in rock music. The record also contains the band’s least Van Halen song — ironically the one containing three members of the Van Halen family. Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now) features clarinet by Eddie and Alex’s father Jan. Like Pretty Woman, Big Bad Bill is also a cover song — one dating back to 1924:
Miley Cyrus is pretty great as far as I’m concerned. She entertained my daughters as Hannah Montana and further hooked them with her transition to pure pop of her own — getting increasingly more daring, mature and creative with every subsequent release. She blew everyone away with her rendition of Say Hello To Heaven at the Chris Cornell tribute concert. And along the way, she became pals with Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips. Coyne wrote what I believe is her least Mileyesque song, I’m So Drunk:
Bob Dylan decided his 34th studio album would be a Christmas record. No surprise this is where you’ll find songs about as far-removed from what you’d consider pinnacle Dylan. As a huge lover of stuff like Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Must Be Santa strikes me as very strange indeed:
One reason you might not be able to name the artist doing a song is because the song is being sung by someone other than their usual singer. (Unless it’s The Doors, because Ray Manzarek sounded the same as Jim Morrison). I’ve got a slew of those, some good, some not so good — such as Bill Wyman’s In Another Land from The Rolling Stones’ 1967 “psychedelic” album Their Satanic Majesties Request. I actually really like this album, and this song:
Jimi Hendrix didn’t sing all of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s songs — I believe bass player Noel Redding sang two of them. The better of those is Little Miss Strange from the filler-filled Electric Ladyland. Actually, it’s one of the better tracks on the double album:
The third song in this suite of “not their usual lead vocalist” tunes comes from Black Sabbath. Not only is it sung by someone other than Ozzy Osbourne, but it’s also not sung by Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan, Tony Martin, Glenn Hughes, Ron Keel, Dave Walker or David Donato. No sir. It’s Alright is sung by drummer Bill Ward and sounds nothing like Sabbath:
I’ve written before about the awesome album Crazy Horses by The Osmonds. It came out in 1972 and picked up where Phase III left off — in a big way. You could call this a hard-rock album. All the songs were written by Alan, Merrill and Wayne Osmond. Jay contributed to one, but Donny wrote squat. While Merrill was the group’s usual lead vocalist, the incredible title track (Immigrant Song, Osmonds-style!) is sung by Jay, who last year wrote the Osmonds musical:
When KISS made their appearance on MTV Unplugged in the late ’90s, most people were abuzz about the fact that the original members — Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons — were eventually joined onstage by the other two original members, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. This soft reunion laid the groundwork for the big one just around the corner — and the return to wearing the classic makeup. But for me, the standout moment from the Unplugged performance was the decision to do See You Tonight from Gene’s 1978 solo album. This is the most likeable Simmons has ever been:
Neil Young went through a weird decade from the dawn of the ’80s through to the rise of grunge in the 90s. Of particular puzzlement is Neil’s Geffen-era where he made a rockabilly album, a country album — but first — an electronic album. I love Computer Age from 1983’s Trans:
Sadly, when most people think of The Beach Boys, they picture five guys in matching striped shirts, singing Surfin’ USA… or, if we’re lucky, they picture troubled genius Brian Wilson in the studio overseeing and directing the creation of Good Vibrations and the various studio-musician masterpieces on Pet Sounds. But I like to picture the especially troubled Wilson, in a bathrobe, singing A Day In The Life Of A Tree — accompanied by a pump organ, a pipe organ and a harmonium while lyricist Van Dyke Parks watched. This song sits in the deep-cut hole in the middle of the second side of 1971’s excellent “comeback” album Surf’s Up:
I, for one, had no idea I was listening to Lady Gaga the first time I heard the title track from 2016’s Joanne. The stripped-down album gets its name from Gaga’s actual middle name (also the name of her beloved late aunt). It’s so damn good:
The name Robert Palmer probably conjures up the incredibly catchy, huge hit Addicted To Love. Perhaps you may recall the followup Simply Irresistible or any of his blue-eyed soul numbers from the ’70s. But I hope you’ll be as delighted as I am with his 1980 new wave album Clues, particularly the vocal phrasing genius on Woke Up Laughing:
Johnny Cash still sounded like Johnny Cash when he teamed up with Rick Rubin. I mean, the production and arrangements were quite different at times, but it still sounded like Johnny. Same goes for Dr. John when he worked with Dan Auerbach or Iggy Pop under the direction of Josh Homme. But when Loretta Lynn made Van Lear Rose with Jack White, they really made something different from anything else in her catalog, especially the all-timer Portland Oregon:
I mentioned Brian Wilson’s bathrobe phase. Well, Alice Cooper had a straitjacket phase. In 1983 he had relapsed heavily into alcoholism, and before he took a break to get sober, he came up to the Markham, Ont., area to make an electronic album with Bob Ezrin. Alice made three records in the early 80s which really challenged his traditional fanbase — Flush The Fashion, Zipper Catches Skin and Dada:
Not everyone made questionable music after the peak years ended. Sometimes, that when musicians do their best work — thanks to being given a bit of artistic freedom. Silverchair were initially a bunch of puke kids who looked cool and sounded enough like Pearl Jam that they got pretty successful. It didn’t last, but a few years later they started making actually great music, like The Man That Knew Too Much:
Similarly, the members of The Monkees lobbied for years to be more than actors. But, my favourite song of theirs doesn’t feature them playing any instruments — just Mickey Dolenz’s lead and Davey Jones’ backing vocals. Porpoise Song is the theme of their avant-garde 1968 film Head. The movie was co-written by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, but Porpoise Song is one of many Goffin-King triumphs. In fact, I think the female backing vocalist is Carole King herself:
I’ll end with another CanCon selection. Martha And The Muffins are known for one of their two hits — Echo Beach from their debut album or Black Stations White Stations (after they changed their name to M+M). There’s no way you’ll know the beautiful instrumental Jets Seem Slower In London Skies is from the same people. The band’s first two albums were recorded in England, but when the second one flopped, they returned to Canada and made This Is The Ice Age in Toronto with Gatineau’s Daniel Lanois — his first gig as a producer. This song, OMG.
There’s way more of these “bet you’ll never guess who this is” songs, so I created a companion playlist to accommodate them. Enjoy!
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.