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10 Unusual Albums to Kickstart a Musical Renaissance

A new world of longform jams, savage rap and profound atmosphere.

Jake Doetkott

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Repetition can turn the finest wine back into water. No one wants a worn-out recording of a favorite song.

Should you dare to cast your line or take the plunge, there’s a wider pool of polyphonic possibility that will guide you away from a musical malaise and into a new world of longform jams, savage rap and profound atmosphere.

Here are 10 unusual albums to kickstart a musical renaissance.

Dragons of Eden – Buckethead, Travis Dickerson and Bryan “Brain” Mantia

Carl Sagan would’ve been proud of this all-instrumental compliment to his 1977 book Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. Inspired by the Sagan book, five of the album’s tracks are directly lifted from its chapter titles.

Despite the fact that the album is split up by tracks, I’d highly recommend listening to this one all in one go. It doesn’t require prior knowledge of the Sagan book, but its guitar and keyboard melodies reflects the book’s subject matter by invoking strong images of primitive man steeped in a world of mystery, peril, and discovery.

The music is appropriately gargantuan as it leads you through the journey of the human mind and the journey to come.

Macintosh Plus – Floral Shoppe

Ever felt nostalgic for a decade you weren’t even alive for? Want an approach to ambient music that perfectly reflects the forlorn soul of modern man trapped in the matrix of late-stage capitalism?

Floral Shoppe’s Macintosh Plus is the gateway drug into the world of Vaporwave.

Vaporwave is a remix-culture genre that splices, distorts, and slows down established songs, repurposes and repackages them with the intention of providing mood muzak for the millennial soul. Floral Shoppe slows the mind down and takes it to an empty intersection occupied by ghosts of America and Japan’s 1980s and their visions of the future.

If you frequent Reddit or 4chan, you may have some familiarity with this album via its infectious synthy lounge-esque opening track, it’s no stranger to the dank webm/meme compilation scene.

Like stoner metal, vaporwave affords listeners the strange privilege of zoning out and forgetting the music’s presence. It’s the perfect accompaniment to sitting in your room thinking about everything and thinking about nothing. Give the meme a try, or ask your mom for a Pepsi.

Jerusalem / Dopesmoker – Sleep

This is THE album to introduce your metal-loving friend to the stoner metal genre. It demands a new approach to musical engagement.

With the hectic speed of modernity, it seems few people take the time to exclusively listen to an album — no phone, no distractions — but a miracle happens when you find an album worthy of such dedicated focus. Hopefully your girlfriend Mary Jane is in town for the occasion.

It may be more accurate to call Dopesmoker a hymn instead of an album. Ditto for calling it a song. It has no track listing and the album is one continuous flow of thick guitar distortions and Al Cisnero’s gravely vocals.  

You don’t need to be a lawbreaking dope smoker yourself to delve into this chunky guitar-driven desert voyage of an album, but Cisneros admits that weed was a key ingredient in Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Story Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces.

“I was dependent on the space I got into when I was using it, and some of the lyrics are about that,” Cisnero said.

If you are inclined to heed the song’s opening lines then grab this record, lie down, and, “Drop out of life with bong in hand.”

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea – Neutral Milk Hotel

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, this record is a whole art gallery.

This album set the bar for all hipster-folk music to come. Singer Jeff Mangum’s vocals may initially grate against your ears like bagpipes — if the real bagpipes in the album don’t get you first — but his charm and effort will pay off, should you give the album an honest listen.

The lyrics are touching, the vocals are intimate, and the instrument choices are delightfully eclectic. One moment it’s just you, Mangum, and his guitar, and the next it’s boisterous brass and singing saws.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a fever dream of loosely connected themes that touch on hope for a hereafter, awkward youthful love, the eternity within bearing children, the pain of genocide, and a yearning to preserve Anne Frank’s indestructible purity and optimism.

This is Mangum’s magnum opus, and he has yet to record an album since. The question is, does he ever need to?

Low – David Bowie

David Bowie’s Station to Station days, which predated Low by about one year, were bizarre. As the story goes, he made Tony Montana look like a joke with the amount of coke he was doing, ate nothing but peppers and milk, and channeled his interests in Aleister Crowley and the Nazi occult.

1977’s Low has little to do with The Thin White Duke persona, but it’s comedically ironic that he left Los Angeles for Berlin after his flirtation with the Nazis. While in Germany, he and Iggy Pop made some great music, and Low started it all.

Steeped in the zeitgeist of a dramatically changed 1970s Germany, Bowie heeded Brian Eno’s advice and experimented with moody synth keyboards to capture the spirit of the times.  

The album begins with great upbeat and energetic tracks before luring you into a grim, yet faintly hopeful soundscape full of distressed vocals and alternate-universe European chants.

Low is some of Bowie’s greatest music, the dour older brother album to Heroes. If Low doesn’t catch your fancy, Heroes will let you test the waters first.

Yona-Kit – Yona-Kit

Yona-Kit is a self-titled supergroup project by K.K. Null, Jim O’Rourke, Darin Gray and Thymme Jones, released in 1994.

The music is grimy, abrasive, and conjures images of rusty and abandoned industrial parks and freezer rooms adorned with equally-rusty meat hooks.

You’ll likely be unimpressed by it on first listen. The vocalist sounds like he doesn’t want to try harder and the repetitious choruses like “Skeletal king! He’s big as shit!” feel mindlessly profane and undeveloped. The album demands several full listens to understand what it’s going for. Its lyrics are indecipherable and ultimately not that important anyway. Guitarist and vocalist KK Null sings in his mother-tongue of Japanese at times as well – notably on “Hi Ka Ri”.

The album is groovy in its own creatively off-putting way and somehow gets away with repeating the same 12 bars for a cumulative 16 minutes or more during the closing track “Slice of Life”. If you’re like me, you’ll stick around for “Hi Ka Ri” and that silly album cover and get hooked. After listen three, you’ll be locked in the album’s freezer and your music tastes will forever be corroded.

Mother Earth’s Plantasia – Mort Garson

Master of the Moog, Mort Garson came to me in a rare moment of You Tube-recommended curiosity. The “Warm earth music for plants… and the people who love them” tagline was too silly not to entertain. For me, it was love at first track.

The music is airy, bubbly, and paradoxically earthly — despite the purely synth-driven instrumentation. The Legend of Zelda fans will have a wonderful time with “Concerto for Philodendron & Pothos.” In fact, the album will sound vaguely reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons.

Whether you’re a houseplant, or a person who loves them, this album is too loveable to not enjoy. The album inspired me to grow a houseplant of my own. I serenaded it with this record several times. I like to think it helped.

Exmilitary – Death Grips

Few album covers sell their album as well as Death Grips’ Exmilitary.

The powerful gaze of the man and the roughed-up edges of the photo welcome you to the world of Exmilitary. A disjunct hip-hop assortment accompanied by MC Rides’ shouting vocals and menacing lyrical cadence drag you through a gritty used-needle-filled world of beastly id, drugs, paranoia, and greedy hedonism.

The album is a mixtape comprised of severely tampered pre-established songs like The Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey,” David Bowie’s “The Supermen” and much more.

The second track, “Guillotine” is the, quote unquote, radio hit of the album, but songs like “Takyon (Death Yon)” and “Culture Shock” are the album’s earworms.

The Virgil to your Dante for this mixtape is none other than Charles Manson. That’s right, track one begins with a Manson monologue — don’t worry he leaves and never returns after “Beware.” The album is highly quotable and practically forces you to shout along to it.

Anthony Fantano dubbed it “angry, violent hobo rap” and that’s the best way to describe this 13-track masterwork.

You won’t find it on Spotify, but thankfully the band released it for free under the title “Black Google” on the band’s official website (or it was when the site was still active).

The audio tracks are split up for easy remixing if “you want it you need it (need it) to make you feel heated,” MC Ride sang on “I Want It I Need It (Death Heated).”

Murder of the Universe – King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

This album is conveniently segmented in pieces, but the full cover-to-cover experience is still the preferred method for tackling this monstrous three-part epic.

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard masks itself with outer silliness and many of their albums are self-contained, but beneath the guise lies a secretly woven tale of travelers, portals, and the destiny of Han Tyumi humanity.

This is the worst King Gizzard album you could start with, as it pays tribute to and repurposes many of the memorable riffs from the band’s earlier albums like Nonagon Infinity, Paper Mache Dream Balloon, I’m In Your Mind Fuzz. On the Brightside, when King Gizzard went loco and released five albums in 2017, they gave the equally audaciously named Polygondwanaland away for free.

King Gizzard are a love it or leave it type of band. Their genre-blending and ever changing use of psychedelic surfer rock is loaded with pizzazz, energy, and kickass licks. They’re dangerously addictive and hardly predictable.

Once you’ve acquired a taste for the Lizard Wizard, you simply must give Murder of the Universe an honest attempt. Many people write this album off by citing their distaste for Leah Seniors’ overlaid whispery narrations. She may get in the way on the first listen, but Gizzard’s live performances usually leave the narration out. Otherwise, this 8-bit rendition of the album is a Leah-safe alternative.

Witness the tale of the altered beast, the battle of two behemoths, and an altered future of digital black.

Dark Continent – Wall of Voodoo

A super fun new wave album that sounds like spaghetti Western had a lovechild with Devo. Singer Stan Ridgway possesses an infectiously cheesy set of pipes and an approach to songwriting befitting such a voice.

Tracks like “Back in Flesh,” “Red Light,” and “Call Box (1-2-3)” are absolute joys, as is much of the 1981 album. Even the more repetitive and intentionally agitating songs like “Me and My Dad” and “Tse Tse Fly” have enough humor in them to make them palatable. Despite a running length of three minutes and 20 seconds, “Me and My Dad” manages to feel like 10 minutes with its monotonous tone and slow pacing compared to the albums mostly high tempo up-and-down rhythms.  

The album, barring two tracks, is consistent in mood and a thoroughly pleasant, yet twisted, romp through unfamiliar sonic territory.

If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.

Shortly after graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in May of 2018, I worked at Star Publications, a central Minnesota newspaper brand, for one year. I am pursuing a career involving content writing, copy editing, public relations, and or radio broadcasting. I pride myself in my writing ability and critical thinking. My primary skills are my writing ability, extensive vocabulary, grammar skills, critical thinking, and journalism (plus photography). I also have a strong knowledge of the Adobe suite as well as audio programs like Audacity and Wavepad.

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