Art rock

Art rock is a sub-genre of rock music that is characterized by ambitious lyrical themes and melodic or rhythmic experimentation, often extending beyond standard pop song forms and toward influences in jazz, classical, or the avant-garde. The art rock designation is a vague one, since few of today's rock and pop artists openly aspire to the title.

Taken subjectively, art rock is a term that can encompass just about any style within the rock n' roll umbrella. To name just a few: Brian Eno's ambient music; the electronica and musique concrete of German "Krautrock" bands like Kraftwerk and Neu!; Peter Gabriel's world music-influenced pop; Tool's textured heavy metal; Joni Mitchell's jazz-infused folk rock; and the sonic experimentation and/or abrasive noise common to many of the so-called "post punk," "indie," and "alternative rock" bands of the past 25 years. Radiohead, for example, is often known as an "alternative rock" band because it arose in the wake of the 1991 grunge explosion, but Radiohead's influences range far beyond those of most bands one hears on alternative rock radio stations, and with acclaimed albums like OK Computer and Kid A they have become by far the most popular current act to embrace the art rock aesthetic. Around 2004, the phrase "art rock" has been popularly used to describe a movement of bands influenced by the 1970s/1980s new wave revivalist movement, such as Franz Ferdinand, The Killers and Kaiser Chiefs. Whether this movement is "art rock" in the original sense of the word is a matter for some debate.

Critics and fans sometimes use the term "art rock" to make a cultural statement about the state of popular music. Artists whose sound is based in the rock and pop forms first established in the 1960s -- even those who clearly transcend these forms -- are still viewed by some members of the elite, particularly classical or jazz critics, as mere peddlers of product, and thus 'low art'. Identifying certain popular music as 'art rock' makes a claim both for the integrity of the specified work or artist and for the serious artistic potential of rock and pop music in general.

Art rock did reach its commercial height with the popularity of the aforementioned "progressive rock" bands, such as King Crimson, Yes, and especially Pink Floyd, whose mix of jazz and blues influences, smooth psychedelic soundscapes, and anti-establishment lyrics proved to be just as influential and commercially viable as any "mainstream" music. After the punk revolution of the late '70s put simplicity back in style, and as openly philosophical bands like Pink Floyd drifted toward the mainstream with hit singles and more commercial productions, their "art rock" designation fell away, and a new breed of artists with influences in noisy punk and minimalist electronic music took their place on the cutting edge of "art rock."

Though technically one might think of art rock as the antithesis of punk's straightforwardness, most well respected art rock bands of the 1980s, 90s, and 00s made music informed by the punk ethic, if not the sound, in some regard. In fact, the webs of connections are so twisted that progressive rockers King Crimson and the Talking Heads actually converged on very similar styles of music in the 1980s, even sharing the same guitarist.

Both were art rock, because art rock is an aesthetic rather than a sound. The Cure began as a loud, raw punk band, had a series of electronic romantic pop hits, and now gets played on alternative rock stations, but throughout it all held to an atmospheric, edgy style that cannot be put into a single bracket. Sonic Youth began as a wildly experimental venture, influenced by the noisiest fringes of punk and the classical avant-garde — especially the guitar works of Glenn Branca; by the late 1980s, their music was accessible enough to influence a new generation of alt rock and grunge bands, like Nirvana. The Police began as a reggae band, incorporated punk's energy and jazzy drumming, then adopting softer world music textures, and now their hits are played on classic rock or adult contemporary stations. All three of these bands, and many more, are luminaries of art rock, in their own wildly divergent ways.

Though each generation of artists spawns its own set of quickly abandoned labels-- prog, new wave, grunge, alternative-- perhaps in this age of low expectations and cookie cutter radio playlists, "art rock" is the only term that can accurately hint at the variety of influences and unbridled creativity that the most unique bands of any genre aspire to.

The use of art in art rock should not be confused with its use in art music, which generally connotes classical music, not "arty" popular music. However, it must be noted that late 20th-century "classical" composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, with their interest in rhythm, repetition, and texture, have come ever closer to bridging the gap with popular music. The only remaining line between art rock and avant-garde classical is a vague one: avant-garde, like other classical music, is still usually composed and written down so that it can be played in concert by various performers, while in art rock, like any other modern pop music, the music is not written down because the primary medium is the original recording, and subsequent live performances are usually done by the songwriters/composers themselves. But even here the line is blurred, since many of these same avant-garde "classical" composers, some of whom were active long before the Beatles, have relied on recorded sound and tape loop manipulation just as much as any art rock band. At the same time, rock artists like Frank Zappa have composed well respected works of avant-garde classical music.

Some Notable Artists


Related Genres

Rock and roll | Rock genres
Alternative rock | Art rock | Cello rock | Desert rock | Detroit rock | Dialect rock | Emo | Garage rock | Girl group | Glam rock | Glitter rock | Hard rock | Hardcore | Heartland rock | Instrumental rock | Jam band | Jangle pop | Post-rock | Power pop | Psychedelia | Pub rock (Aussie) | Pub rock (UK) | Punk rock | Rock en Espaol | Soft rock | Southern rock | Surf | Symphonic rock
Aboriginal rock | Anadolu rock | Blues-rock | Boogaloo | Country rock | Cumbia rock | Flamenco-rock | Folk-rock | Indo-rock | Madchester | Merseybeat | Progressive rock | Punta rock | Raga rock | Ra rock | Rockabilly | Samba-rock - Tango rockéro

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