Dolly Parton’s ‘Rockstar’ & 12 Times Artists Experimented With Other Genres
The Beastie Boys, The Clash, Tom Waits, and Neil Young have all experimented with sounds that may surprise you.
When Dolly Parton was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022, the beloved musical icon and prolific singer-songwriter initially declined. Although “extremely flattered and grateful,” Dolly said that, as a country artist, she hadn’t “earned that right.” The Hall of Fame countered that rock shared its roots with country and rhythm & blues. Dolly eventually had a change of heart and it inspired her to “put out a hopefully great rock ’n’ roll album at some point in the future.”
Rockstar aptly fulfills that promise, with Dolly flexing her rock chops alongside legends like Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Debbie Harry, Rob Halford, and Elton John. And while it’s charting new musical territory for the country legend, Dolly is far from the first artist to dabble in genres beyond the sound for which they’re best known.
From gestational early releases and mid-career style shifts to one-off experiments, this list explores releases that sound nothing like the rest of the artists’ discographies.
Dive into the releases below and experience a sonic surprise or two.
Debuts With Different Sounds
Polly Wog Stew EP (1982)
by Beastie Boys
Before they became one of hip-hop’s biggest acts, the Beastie Boys were a punk band. Their debut EP features their early hardcore punk sound and the 7-inch version has become a rare collectors item. Luckily, the material has also been released on the Some Old Bullshit compilation, alongside some of the group’s earliest hip-hop tracks. The Beasties blew up bringing their unique take on hip-hop to the masses, but they never completely abandoned their punk roots. You can hear it on the Beastie Boys’ early ’90s albums Check Your Head and Ill Communication, and on 1995’s return-to-punk EP Aglio E Olio.
With Sympathy (1983)
Ministry is known for their pummeling industrial sound, but the band’s debut is something else entirely. From its new romantic cover art to their minimalist goth fashion sense, With Sympathy finds Ministry deeply rooted in the new wave styles of the day, crafting incredibly catchy synth-pop songs that sound destined for the dance floor. Over the years, Al Jourgensen has dismissed With Sympathy, claiming the new wave sound was forced on them by Arista Records. More recently, he’s changed his tune and credits the album for helping him become the “maniac douchebag” he is today.
by Alanis Morissette
Alanis Morissette’s 1991 debut is an of-its-time dance-pop record that earned comparisons to Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. A sophomore album found her exploring the emotive power of her voice, incorporating ballads and more serious lyrics. With her two-album recording contract behind her, Morissette relocated, teamed up with producer Glen Ballard, and channeled her angst into the cathartic, alternative rock-inflected songs of Jagged Little Pill for which she’s indelibly known.
Lemonade & Brownies (1995)
by Sugar Ray
Before making it big with breezy, radio-friendly pop hits, Sugar Ray launched their career with an album of heavier funk and nu-metal called Lemonade & Brownies. While they continued to incorporate these sounds on their breakout second album Floored, they also set their sights on crafting more memorable pop hooks. “Fly” became a chart-topping single and the band has continued to focus on a more pop-oriented sound ever since.
Mid-Career Style Shifts
London Calling (1979)
by The Clash
The Clash are known as punk pioneers, but they’re also known for greatly expanding the genre’s sonic palette. After releasing their self-titled debut and second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope, a bit of writer’s block and a new routine – disciplined rehearsals followed by football and the pub – spurred the band to branch out with a variety of influences. London Calling marks their first, monumental step into that wider world, blending their punk roots with genres like reggae, rockabilly, ska, and R&B. Following albums would go even further – from Sandinista!’s sprawling triple-LP experiments to the dub and hip-hop riffs of Combat Rock – but it was the crossover appeal of London Calling that catapulted the Clash from being one of Britain’s best punk bands to living up to their tag “the only band that matters.”
by Tom Waits
Newly married and free of his contractual obligations with Asylum Records, Tom Waits decided it was time to reinvent his artistic output. Drawing influence from Captain Beefheart and Harry Partch, Waits took his jazzy piano blues material in a more experimental rock direction. The result was a string of groundbreaking albums released by Island Records, starting with Swordfishtrombones, which fans and critics continue to praise as some of Waits’ finest work. Ever since, Waits has used his singular voice to challenge rock and roll conventions.
Cowboys From Hell (1990)
Pantera’s fifth studio album and major label debut, Cowboys From Hell, laid the foundation for the entire groove metal subgenre. Formed in 1981, the band released four glam metal records throughout the ’80s, building an underground following while touring with bands like Stryper, Dokken, and Quiet Riot. Their glam metal sound slowly got heavier with each album and the addition of vocalist Phil Anselmo empowered the band to further evolve and create a sound that was all their own. Once they locked into groove metal, Pantera never looked back.
Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1998)
Ulver’s first three albums established them as a visionary black metal band that dabbled in some dark folk, but by 1997, they had other plans. With new member Tore Ylwizaker joining the collective, Ulver began to pursue an experimental electronica sound that would be met with much backlash from the black metal community. Regardless of the purists, 1998’s Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was praised by critics for its unique blend of electronic music, progressive metal, and industrial and ambient elements. It helped the band reach a much wider audience and Ulver remains a genre-defying electronic group to this day.
Metal Machine Music (1975)
by Lou Reed
Lou Reed was well-known for his avant-garde sensibilities with the Velvet Underground, but in 1975, no one could have predicted the audio assault of Metal Machine Music. Reed’s solo albums Transformer and Berlin were quickly recognized as art rock classics, and after 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance saw his popularity peaking, RCA pushed for a quick follow-up. Reed was under more pressure than ever, so he handed over a spiteful album that was nothing but modulated feedback and noise. After the controversial record was released, Reed followed it up with one of the most emotionally expressive albums of his entire career.
by Neil Young
Neil Young switched things up multiple times in the ’80s, from a rockabilly record to making experimental films with Devo, but his 1982 foray into electronic music still stands as one of his most memorable experiments. The album’s heavy use of vocoder was inspired by Kraftwerk and served as a way for Young to try and communicate with his son who was born with cerebral palsy and unable to speak. Although some fans remain baffled by Trans, diehards have praised the record for its radical approach and influence on future electronic subgenres.
Into The Unknown (1983)
by Bad Religion
What happens when an up-and-coming punk band decides to record a prog rock record? In the case of Bad Religion, they release Into The Unknown, break up, and then reform with a commitment to go back to their punk roots. Into The Unknown prominently features organ and piano, slower tempos, and anthemic vocal patterns, making it a radical departure from their previous album. After breaking up and reforming, they released 1985’s Back To The Known, an EP that announced they were once again a punk band. The experience inspired the band to further fine-tune their sound and 1988’s Suffer became one of the most influential punk records of all time.
Greatest Hits / Garth Brooks In The Life Of Chris Gaines (1999)
by Chris Gaines / Garth Brooks
Garth Brooks didn’t just change his sound in 1999, he created an entire alter ego, radically changed his look, and released a wholly unexpected alternative rock record. The fictional Chris Gaines persona was a way for Brooks to explore different musical styles and the plan was to release a film that featured the character. The film never materialized, but Brooks promoted the album with a mockumentary on VH1 and a dual performance on Saturday Night Live in which he hosted as Garth Brooks with musical guest Chris Gaines. As of now, this remains a one-off endeavor, but Brooks has expressed interest in recording more albums as Chris Gaines.