Switch on the radio and it’s easy to get all down in the mouth about the bland-derivative tunes churned out, these days, by some musicians. But the fact is, if you know where to look, there’s more musical ingenuity out there than ever before. And we’re not just talking sounds – we mean gigs, promotion, the works! Here’s a few riffs to pique your interest from the ten most gob-smackingly imaginative musicians ever…
1. The Decemberists
This is a video for the intertextual hipster generation: Michael Schur, the co-creator of TV comedy Parks and Recreation, has teamed with The Decemberists on their Calamity Song video to recreate the apocalyptic tennis match from David Foster Wallace’s enormous and (dare we say it?) unfilmable novel, Infinite Jest. Ambition, we bow to thee.
In 2007, in an admirable attempt to match the gig-venue to the album-title, Jamiroquai played a set on board a Boeing 757 to promote their greatest hits compilation, High Times – geddit? They held onto the Highest Altitude Gig Ever accolade until James Blunt pipped their Gig In The Sky with his own effort in 2010 – but, no quibbles, Jay Kay had the idea first.
Definitely not a household name, but also definitely awesome: this team of five musically-inclined research scientists based in Antarctica played a gig on the ice as part of the July 2007 Live Earth concerts to highlight climate change, just so organisers could claim that every continent had taken part. Their show couldn’t be streamed live because of plunging temperatures and high winds, but play they did…
4. The Vaccines
Hip to modern tech and trends, indie band The Vaccines crowd-sourced the images for their Wetsuit video from photos taken by their fans. Inclusive, nostalgic, and oh-so-pretty, this is music-making at its most responsive.
5. Modified Toy Orchestra
Don’t think it’s all about guitars and big drums. Birmingham, England, is home to the Modified Toy Orchestra, a six-piece ensemble of experimental musicians who record and tour music made from circuit-bending repurposed kids’ toys. It’s recycling, it’s art, and it’s brilliant! Two albums and many festival appearances later, there’s no stopping those toys.
6. Martin Creed
Not a band, but a Turner Prize-winning artist and musician, Creed was commissioned to provide a work for the London 212 Festival, a cultural programme that accompanied the 2012 London Olympic Games. Creed’s contribution was Work No. 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes. Music? Art? Opinion was divided. But the British public joined in with a vengeance. Innovative? Certainly!
7. Pussy Riot
All girl, all punk, all balaclava’d and all nick-named: this hard-core feminist group of twelve stage guerrilla gigs on the streets of Russia and then upload the videos to YouTube. They hit the headlines in 2012 when several members were arrested and imprisoned for hooliganism, sparking international protest and outrage. Stylistically innovative and politically courageous, Pussy Riot are definitely inventive. Here they are performing in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012.
8. Insane Clown Posse
Not forgetting the accessories: this hip-hip, or horrorcore, duo from Michigan are known for the elaborate staging of their gigs. Sure, they dress as clowns – scary clowns – but they also bring along monsters, a ringmaster and trampolines, and they’ve dressed their stage as a cemetery and a game show. They claim their concerts are not so much gigs as circuses. U2 have nothing on this.
9. Steve Reich
Just about the most famous minimalist composer going, Reich has trodden some pretty unusual musical ground. His 1988 composition, Different Trains, a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape, as performed by the Kronos Quartet in 1990, won a Grammy. Inspired by Reich’s Jewish heritage, it uses train sounds and recorded interviews with various people, including three Holocaust survivors, as they talk about WWII. Chilling.
10. Jon Rose
Australian Jon Rose takes conceptual music to a gritty extreme: he plays the fence. Thinking metaphorically, he sees his music as breaking down the boundaries that separate people. In 1995, he played a barbed wire fence with a bow to a bemused crowd at the New Music Festival in Vitasaari, Finland, and now he’s travelling Australia, playing fences and documenting the history of the local people involved with the fences.
When it comes to pure awe inspiring inventiveness, we think these guys and girls are pretty hard to top. Still, we’re always happy to be proven wrong, so why not let us know your choices for top musical imagineers, too.
Image credit: Serbastiaan ter Burg