12 Times Established Artists Took an Awesomely Weird, Chris Gaines-Like Musical Turn

Garth Brooks had a "Robin Daggers" emo phase as Chris Gaines, but we loved it.
Garth Brooks had a "Robin Daggers" emo phase as Chris Gaines, but we loved it. Rick Diamond/Getty
Most of us have had a compulsion to reinvent ourselves at one point or another, or perhaps we've given in to the willful whims of a mid-life crisis. We've likely all had moments in our lives when something could have gone wonderfully but ended in disaster, or we've suppressed some instinctual urge out of fear of criticism or failure, only to let it go and feel the warmth of compassion and acceptance. It's part of the human condition, and music's history is a great exploration into these experiences.

Looking back through the changing works of artists who suddenly experimented with a new sound also shows us that highly respected, world-renowned musicians can fuck up too. And it's OK.

We've examined some of the best and worst musical departures from some highly revered artists over the past several decades, and if there's one thing we've learned, it's that sometimes you have to piss off, or at least confuse, a few people to stay true to yourself.
Bob Dylan
Bringing It All Back Home

It’s hard to think that Bob Dylan’s album Bringing It All Back Home was regarded as some sort of reinvention of character or bizarre left turn in the folk singer’s career (in retrospect, most would argue that came way later), but that’s what the audience thought at the time back in 1965 when he took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, plugged in his Fender Stratocaster and played the album’s second single, “Maggie’s Farm.” It was the widely known moment when Dylan “went electric,” and longtime fans were visibly disappointed that their folk hero now played rock and roll music.

But this directional shift is mainly instrumental, although lyrically it does explore more personal narratives, like in the love songs “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “She Belongs to Me.” But what made Dylan the “voice of his generation” — a title he reluctantly holds — is still evident with tracks like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a song heavily influenced by the emerging counterculture of the decade, and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” which touches on capitalism, war and the impossibility of some political solutions.

Now considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time, Bringing It All Back Home held familiar lyrical themes but was certainly a musical change for Dylan, and even though only a handful of tracks on the record included rock hooks, it marked a new and enduring era of his music making.
Ray Charles
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Ray Charles pioneered soul music in the 1950s, with influences of blues, jazz and gospel music. By the 1960s, he’d recorded “Georgia on My Mind,” “Hit the Road Jack” and other memorable Top 40 singles. But it was his blending of soulful pop into country music that earned him a unique place in music history.

Released in 1962 as the civil rights movement was in full swing, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was supposed to ruin Charles’ career, at least according to his record label at the time. But Charles wasn’t worried about the possibility of losing a few listeners, as he knew he’d gain even more. Plus, the record included covers of several already well-known pop chart standards, such as the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.” Though commercially and critically successful at the time, the album never landed on the country charts, as the platform would remain “whites only” for a handful of years to come. But today the album is considered historically significant, and in 1999 was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Neil Young

Neil Young’s 1983 electronic effort Trans still baffles fans today. The singer-songwriter’s voice is unrecognizable through a synthesizer backed by a drum machine. And to make it weirder, three of the nine tracks on the album (which sound much more like the traditional Neil Young songs of the ’70s) were intended for a different project that never materialized, giving listeners serious auditory whiplash as they played through the album.

According to Young’s biography Shakey, though, the album does hold sentimental value for the musician: He wrote it during a time when he would accompany his son in intensive therapy for cerebral palsy, a condition which has made it difficult for the two to communicate and understand one another. It’s thought that Young took this sobering time in his life to experiment or perhaps reinvent himself. Trans is also the soundtrack to the 1982 cult comedy Human Highway (which featured the then lesser-known Devo), also written and co-directed by Young.

While Trans was a commercial flop, it fared better with critics. Today, it’s got a cult following but has mostly stayed shelved as an ’80s relic.
The Byrds
Sweetheart of the Rodeo

Even those long-haired hippies known as The Byrds had a soft spot for country music, as is evident in their genre-departing 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. As pioneers in folk rock, The Byrds were best known for their popular rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the chart-topping “Turn! Turn! Turn!” before entering a new wave of rock that included a much more kaleidoscopic aesthetic.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo was an attempt at making country music cool for young audiences. It was recorded with country rock great Gram Parsons and didn’t go over that well with the conventional Nashville crowd. And while it pleased critics at the time and today is considered a highly influential body of work in the evolution of country rock, it was, at the time, a commercial failure.
With Sympathy

Ministry is now a leader in industrial and heavy metal music, but the band's most uncharacteristic output was actually its debut album — 1983’s synth-pop darling With Sympathy. Nobody hates this album more than frontman and founder Al Jourgenson, who actually donned a fake British accent for the album because he and his record label thought it gave Ministry a more genuine synth-pop sound. Jourgenson has said that his label, Arista, pressured him into recording the album. Jourgenson would ultimately give a big middle finger to his record label, the synths and mod hairstyle and embrace dreadlocks and a much harder form of rock music. Thing is, With Sympathy was on par with other successful synth-pop records at the time, and in a different timeline, Ministry could have become a frontrunner in the genre, as the album was chock-full of catchy dance songs.
Sea Change

With each new Beck album comes a new identity for the genre-bending songwriter and musician. But with 2002's Sea Change, his eighth studio album, much more than usual was different. Citing a major breakup with his longtime girlfriend as his influence for the record, Beck embraced simpler, more introspective lyrics than his usual enigmatic and wry ramblings, a far cry from his first hit single “Loser” back in 1993.

Ditching the “two turntables and a microphone” formula, much of Sea Change is acoustic-based and continues to be a critical darling. Morning Phase, which came out in 2014, is said to be the spiritual follow-up to Sea Change, with the same backing band but written from a much less melancholic point of view.
Beastie Boys
Country Mike’s Greatest Hits

One of the most elusive musical departures comes from the Beastie Boys with Country Mike’s Greatest Hits, a joke album recorded for friends and family around Christmas of 1999. Allegedly, only about 300 copies were pressed, and Mike D would create elaborate stories of his fictional Country Mike character after word got out about the album’s existence.

The Beastie Boys, of course, played a major role in popularizing a genre that mixed rap, punk and hip-hop. Country Mike’s Greatest Hits was an absolute about-face from the group’s usual sound, but it's also a lot of fun to listen to.
Paul McCartney
McCartney 2

McCartney 2 proves that Paul McCartney can pretty much do whatever the hell he wants musically and will be revered for his work, even if critics and audiences didn’t “get it” when it initially came out back in 1980. This cult favorite was heavy on synthesizers and experimented with a very unexpected electronic sound from a guy who is regularly accused of making “grandma music.”

Producing three singles, “Coming Up,” “Waterfalls” and the incredible earworm “Temporary Secretary,” McCartney played all the instruments on the album, which was recorded in his home. Popular electronic music was still in its infancy throughout the 1970s, but McCartney embraced this new wave of eccentricity and instrumentation just before it became widely popular. It’s the only album of its kind in the former Beatle’s canon, and it's a delight.
David Bowie
Young Americans

David Bowie had put to sleep his alter ego Ziggy Stardust just two years prior to establishing an entirely new musical direction in Young Americans. Bowie's ninth studio album, which came out in March 1975, marked a clear departure from the artist’s glam rock style, becoming a “blue-eyed soul” album that featured then-unknown singer Luther Vandross and backing vocals on the single “Fame” by John Lennon. “Fame” ultimately became Bowie’s first No. 1 hit, but overall the album received mixed reviews from critics and still does today. It is, however, an influential album in that Bowie was one of the first white musicians of the era to fully immerse himself in Black musical styles.
Mariah Carey (Chick)
Someone’s Ugly Daughter
Back in the mid-’90s, Mariah Carey ruled pop radio with hits like “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby.” But there was something about the grittier, grungier frontwomen who were emerging in bands like Hole and No Doubt that intrigued Carey. So, she decided to start an alternative rock band called Chick. Thanks to her record label at the time, you likely had no idea.

Chick’s only album, Someone’s Ugly Daughter, came out during the height of Carey’s pop career and was fronted by Clarissa Dane-Davidson. Carey wanted to front the band but Sony Music Entertainment didn’t like the idea, although Carey is reportedly listed as writer and background vocalist “D.Sue” in the album’s liner notes. She also directed the art for the album’s cover, an image of a lipstick and a dead cockroach. The single “Malibu” came out in ’95, but alt-rock stations reportedly wouldn’t play it due to lack of interest.
Chris Gaines
Garth Brooks in…the Life of Chris Gaines

There’s not much in the world of music quite as odd as when, in 1999, country music heavyweight Garth Brooks took on the persona of Chris Gaines — a pale, dark-haired sad boy with a soul patch. He released an album that year titled Garth Brooks in...the Life of Chris Gaines, which was supposed to have been a soundtrack to an upcoming movie titled The Lamb.The film followed the story of a fictional rock musician who was in a car accident and whose career was on the downslope. But the film was never made, and in 2001, the production went on an indefinite hiatus. Brooks was left with fans wondering what in the hell was going on with their favorite country singer. And as if the album and appearances as Gaines alone weren’t enough, VH1 released a mockumentary in the network's signature Behind the Music documentary style, with interviews of Brooks, er, Gaines, talking about sex addiction, car crashes, wildfires and affairs. Most people had no idea Brooks was playing a role, and Gaines eventually slipped into obscurity.

But Brooks’ career did survive, as he has continued to sell out stadiums. And the Gaines album actually didn’t fare terribly bad with listeners at the time.
Orville Peck (Daniel Pitout)

Punk-grunge drummer and singer-songwriter Daniel Pitout managed to keep his identity somewhat secret for a short while after becoming Orville Peck, a masked indie country musician with a striking baritone voice. In 2019 he released the album Pony, including the shoegaze-y “Dead of Night,” to rave reviews. And then folks really started wondering who the anonymous singer was. Turns out, he’s been part of the Vancouver punk scene for a while, in bands Nü Sensae and Eating Out, making Orville Peck the definition of reinvention. Pitout describes his personification of a country crooner as a love letter to classic country and has continued the character’s music with his second album, Bronco, released this past April.
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Diamond Rodrigue
Contact: Diamond Rodrigue

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