Maybe it’s an exaggeration to call Taylor Swift’s career a Kafka-esque Metamorphosis, but her evolution from country ingénue to bubblegum pop princess has been dramatic. (Some of the changes have been a might ugly— in aping Lily Allen’s misguided tongue-in-cheek twerking display, Swift demonstrates that two wrongs don’t make a right.)
Other artists have struggled with genre hopping (lest we forget Brad Paisley’s head-slapping duet with LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist”). But here are 10 musicians who ventured beyond their comfort zones with impressive results:
OK, so the transition from platinum-selling front man of Southern rock band Hootie & the Blowfish wasn’t completely pain free. (Remember his god-awful R&B album, Back to Then? I don’t think HE wants to, either.) But once he put on a metaphorical cowboy hat in 2008 and gave the world “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” Rucker became the first African-American to earn a No. 1 country song since Charley Pride in 1983. Rucker has since become a mainstay in the Nashville scene and won a Grammy in 2014 for Best Country Solo Performance.
Her squeaky, cute vocals did wonders for ska’s popularity in the 1990s as front woman for No Doubt. Their 1995 album, Tragic Kingdom, sold a bazillion copies and also gave a glimpse into the future solo act’s trajectory. Dub and reggae influences crept into No Doubt’s 2001 musical buffet, Rock Steady, which gave way to a full pop transformation in 2004 when she stepped out on her own with Love. Angel. Music. Baby. The drum line thump of “Hollaback Girl” was a galaxy away from the skanking “Just a Girl,” but the risk paid off: LAMB sold 4 million copies in the United States and turned Stefani into a superstar.
Prior to the “Dog” days of his pioneering punk band, the Stooges, the former James Osterberg Jr. drummed for the bluesy Prime Movers. According to the vid below, Osterberg was nice as could be and polite as a schoolboy. Sure, he could cut a sweet shuffling beat. But could Iggy really hide behind the kit forever? He was destined for the spotlight. Though, we’re certain the fury with which he flung his arms around onstage with the Stooges was nurtured in the Prime Movers.
For those who love the Canadian firebrand for her feminist alt-rock hit, “You Oughta Know,” they’ll get a kick out of knowing she used to be a Paula Abdul clone. Her self-titled debut was only released in the land of the Canucks, almost like a dirty little “Ironic” secret Morissette kept close to the chest. These days, it’s somewhat less surprising, as after 1998’s mystical Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie she mellowed out considerably. After hearing “Too Hot,” maybe it makes more sense that it was Michael Jackson’s songwriting collaborator Glen Ballard that helped us swallow Jagged Little Pill in 1995.
Outside of the guitar-driven “Sabotage,” there wasn’t much punk attitude emitting from the boys from Brooklyn after 1982’s Polly Wog Stew EP. Listen to the gloriously messy release, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence Mike D, MCA and King Ad-Rock would one day become an influential hip-hop trio. The EP is sweaty hardcore with unintelligible lyrics and crazed licks. They had to fight for their right to party among the rap elite of the 1980s, but when Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons embraced them, it was history in the making.
Didn’t think industrial metal overlord Al Jourgensen had a soft cell in his body? Oddly enough, Ministry’s 1983 full-length debut, With Sympathy, sounded a lot like Soft Cell, all goth-leaning synth pop. (There’s even a Chic-meets-Blondie number called “I Wanted To Tell Her” on there.) By mid-decade, Ministry were melding real instruments with drilling digital drums, audio samples, growling vox and charming album titles like The Land of Rape and Honey and The Mind Is a Terrible Thing To Taste. So much for Sympathy.
Once upon a time, the Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites DJ fronted an also-ran screamo band called From First to Last. Their most memorable single, 2006’s “Note to Self,” was nestled somewhere between early Paramore and Thrice. The only element in common with Skrillex’s current dubstep sound was the quiet breakdown at the end of the feral tune. Years later, Sonny Moore was no more, and the mixmaster behind “Bangarang” was born.
Before they had “Moves Like Jagger,” Adam Levine and the gang moved to a more punk-pop beat. As Kara’s Flowers, Maroon 5 released two albums worth of Green Day-like numbers (apropos, as frequent Green Day cohorts Jerry Finn and Rob Cavallo worked on The Fourth World). If you fancy Better Than Ezra or Feeder, it would behoove you to check out Levine’s pre-fancy-guy output.
He’s been an underground cult hero as the leader of psychobilly trio Tiger Army for two decades. For his solo debut in 2011, Nick 13 fully embraced the hillbilly part of that recipe and started getting Country Western radio and video airplay. The rambling arrangements and haunted vocals aren’t too foreign to his work in the Army, which in recent years was beginning to sound less like Johnny Ramone and more like Johnny Cash.
Lots of artists end up “finding religion” and changing their tune. When gangsta rapper Snoop Dogg converted to Rastafarianism in 2012, he took on the name Snoop Lion and took up the mantle of reggae. In song, he renounced his thuggish persona that penned “Murder Was the Case” and became Reincarnated as a peace-loving, laidback crooner. And it’s not like he had to give up the ganja.