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10 of the most-dramatic sonic reinventions in music history

Bowie performs as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on July 3, 1973.
Bowie performs as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on July 3, 1973.Express/Getty Images, via NPR

by Erik Thompson

November 17, 2023

Music fans were thrilled to hear the surprise announcement earlier this week of New Blue Sun, the long-awaited solo debut album from André 3000. The legendary rapper hasn’t released an album since Outkast’s 2006 swan song, Idlewild. But some fans were left scratching their heads a bit when André made it clear that this album would feature absolutely no rapping, even putting a label on the record packaging, “Warning: no bars.”

What we get on New Blue Sun is an 87-minute improvisational instrumental album featuring André playing a myriad of flutes and other digital woodwind instruments. It is a dramatic creative shift from one of hip-hop’s most distinctive voices. Ultimately it is not as surprising from an artist who has consistently pushed sonic musical boundaries. In recent years, André has also been spotted roaming the streets of Atlanta playing large wooden flutes while completely lost in his own musical reverie.

Throughout modern popular music, drastic creative reinventions are common among visionary artists who refuse to get tied down to a specific sound, style, or genre. While bravely flouting the expectations of the music industry, several musicians’ left turns have paid off and endeared them to their fans who follow them into new territory. Here are 10 of the greatest stylistic swerves in music.  

André 3000 (2023)

André plainly lays out his creative approach to his debut solo album in the title of the first track, “I Swear, I Really Wanted To Make a ‘Rap’ Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time.” And what a strange wind that must have been. One of the best, most lyrically dynamic MCs in hip-hop history put the mic down and picked up a bunch of flutes instead. But André’s creative audacity and artistic innovation shines through on New Blue Sun, coming across as a fresh modern update on Brian Eno’s ambient Music for Airports. If you give yourself up fully to these soothing instrumental woodwind sounds, they will take you somewhere special. They clearly have taken André 3000 where he needed to go, and we suspect he likes it there.

David Bowie (1972-1973)

Perhaps the king of artistic reinvention, Bowie was struggling to reach a worldwide audience at the start of his career. But with the creation of the flamboyant alter ego Ziggy Stardust and his  scorching backing band the Spiders From Mars, Bowie finally became a rock star. Decked out in full makeup, neon-colored hair, and glittery, ostentatious costumes, Bowie was also at the forefront of the blossoming glam rock movement that soon took over England as well as the United States in the early ’70s. But rather than exploiting his successful creation, Bowie killed off Ziggy in 1973 at a legendary show at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, and soon after created an equally enchanting new character, the Thin White Duke.

Madonna (1998-2001)

Throughout her legendary 40-year music career, Madonna has played the role of a not-so-innocent virgin and a material girl, boldly mixing blond ambition with a provocative girlie show. With the release of Ray of Light in 1998 and Music in 2000, Madonna fully embraced the pulsating electronic music that had taken over the club culture at the time. Working with celebrated techno-pop producers like William Orbit and Mirwais, Madonna shifted her sound from mainstream pop and lusty R&B towards an experimental electro-pop style that ushered in a highly successful new chapter in her storied career as well as providing a vibrant soundtrack for the coming millennium. 

Miles Davis (1968-1975)

Miles Davis changed the direction of jazz music multiple times throughout his iconic career, so it is hard to pick just one era to exemplify his continuous sonic reinvention. But his electric jazz-fusion period is one that both critics and fans are still trying to get their heads around. Davis’ groundbreaking albums of this era, like In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, On the Corner, and Big Fun, were innovative electronic experiments in their own right. But Davis’ untethered, free-form live shows from these years are where he really pushed the parameters of his jazz-fusion sound. Davis’ electric period not only changed jazz forever, but his wildly experimental sound of the era influenced funk, soul, and psychedelic rock artists of the time and those to come.

Joni Mitchell (1974-1979)

Following Mitchell’s spare, fragile folk masterpiece, Blue, in 1971, the Canadian singer-songwriter gradually incorporated more jazz elements into her sound on subsequent albums. The elegant jazz-folk-pop fusion of 1974’s Court and Spark and 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns framed Mitchell’s insightful, heartbreaking poetry with increasingly experimental elements that drew from the worldly sound of jazz and rock as it left her folk side behind. By the time Mitchell recorded a full album with the great jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus (alongside an array of jazz legends) in 1979, her immersion into the innovative sounds of jazz was complete.

 

Prince (1993-2000)

As with most of the other artists on this list, there are many eras of Prince’s legendary career to choose from where he reinvented his sound and took his musical style in fresh new directions. But perhaps no period was filled with more creative change and personal upheaval for Prince than when he not only altered his sound but he changed his professional name to an unpronounceable glyph known to fans as The Love Symbol. The Artist Formerly Known As Prince was in a heated contractual debate with Warner Bros., and he was trying to take his creative power and artistic ownership back from the record company. The controversy regarding his name change unfortunately garnered most of the headlines and made him the punchline of many comedians' jokes, and overshadowed the often brilliant music he was making at the time.

 

PJ Harvey (2007-2011)

It’s quite a musical journey from the raw punk fury of PJ Harvey’s early work to her elegant alt-rock middle period to the spare, haunted English tone poems of her contemporary output. Arguably no era of Harvey’s esteemed career reflected as drastic a sonic change as 2007’s piano-laden White Chalk and 2011’s autoharp-infused Let England Shake. The storming guitar riffs and sneering kiss-offs of Harvey’s past were replaced with her vulnerable explorations on instruments she had yet to fully master. The results were still punk-as-f**k, mind you, just hushed and muted reflections of our fractured, troubled times.

Bob Dylan (1965-1967)

It’s hard to overstate just how betrayed the folk music community felt when Bob Dylan went electric. Their beloved rising star and cultural spokesperson had seemingly abandoned them for the crude, undignified sound of rock music. Dylan plugging in and playing an electric set at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 sent shockwaves through the audience and the music world. His subsequent tours in 1965-66 with the Hawks (soon to become The Band) became the stuff of legend and controversy. This combative shift to an electric sound continues to inspire modern artists like Cat Power, who just released a cover album of his entire 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert.

Beyoncé (2013-2022)

Beyoncé became a pop star with Destiny’s Child. But she didn’t really become Beyoncé until she left the group and went solo. When she surprise-released her 2013 self-titled album Beyoncé, complete with short films serving as visual accompaniments to each track, it represented a complete artistic statement from a musician who wasn’t interested in confining her gifts in mere pop songs. She wanted to change the world. Beyoncé’s self-assured, take-no-prisoners masterpiece, Lemonade, followed three years later and was also presented as a visual album, brilliantly blending her heady pop songs with art house films. By the time she headlined “Beychella” in 2018, Beyoncé’s takeover of the music world was complete, and we were all in formation behind her.

Bon Iver (2016-2019)

“Skinny Love” seems like forever ago when compared to the glitchy, electronic experimentalism of Bon Iver’s last two records, 22, A Million and I, I. Not only have the names of Justin Vernon’s songs and albums grown more complicated and punctuated, but his sound has also evolved in a dramatic way. Vernon has mostly left behind the heartbroken folk songs composed in his father’s hunting cabin for an innovative sonic landscape that comes from imaginative studio tinkering and restless musical collaborations. Vernon’s raw emotions and unique worldview are still the beating heart of his songs, they are now just bathed in fractured layers of sound fragments. Most importantly, they still feel like home.