When we think of standout experimental songs, most people understandably think of the sixties.
It was a time of tremendous change, and that got reflected in the music. But music is constantly evolving, and experimental songs come in all shapes and sizes. Here are some of the best experimental songs of all time.
Shine a Light and Let it Loose by The Rolling Stones
Song Year: 1972
The Rolling Stones were notorious for musical experimentation. They are best known for inventing the folk-rock sound, but even so, no two songs are the same.
‘Shine a Light’ stands out as one of the best experimental songs ever, because it’s a peculiar blend of Gospel traditions and rock music.
It’s an unlikely combination, but the experiment pays off. The result is an emotive and meaningful song that listeners around the world connected with immediately.
Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles
Song Year: 1967
Another great experimental songs comes from the Liverpudlian rock group The Beatles.
As They grew in popularity, The Beatles increasingly began experimenting with musical convention and pushing the boundaries of harmony. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is an excellent example.
The band’s producer famously combined two separate takes. One is slightly slower than normal, and the other is sped up. The result was a truly unique listening experience.
A combination of eclectic instruments heightens the song's sense of atypicality. Keep your ears tuned to hear:
- Swarmandal (Indian harp)
Chameleon by Herbie Hancock
Song Year: 1962
Herbie Hancock is a jazz musician who played an instrumental role in developing jazz fusion.
Since jazz is one of those genres perpetually shedding its skin and donning a new one, that claim may not sound as remarkable as it is.
Hancock produced ‘Chameleon’ while struggling to create a new sound for himself. To reinvigorate his creative energy, he took inspiration from funk music.
‘Chameleon’ is immediately recognizable to jazz aficionados because of its idiomatic baseline. The blend of synth and other instruments is unlike anything previously recorded.
To say it’s one of the best experimental jazz songs of all time is to understate its impact on the musical landscape.
Interstellar Overdrive by Pink Floyd
Song Year: 1967
Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ was very different from other music at the time. It’s an instrumental composition that helped bring Pink Floyd into the popular consciousness.
The song’s genesis occurred when the band manager tried and failed to hum a popular melody. Several of the musicians mucked about with their instruments to help him out, and the unlikely episode laid the foundation of ‘Interstellar Overdrive.’
Like other experimental songs on this list, there’s a heavy emphasis on chromaticism and atypical chord progressions that contribute to the music’s unusual sound.
Five Years by Bjork
Song Year: 1997
Icelandic singer Bjork has an astonishingly versatile voice. In ‘Five Years,’ she combines it with distorted drums to fascinating effect.
The result is one of the best experimental songs ever. Bjork’s voice dips ever-lower down the scale, and the drums become increasingly distorted. The result is an undeniably fascinating study in effective editing and composition.
V-2 Schneider by David Bowie
Song Year: 1977
‘V-2 Schneider’ is one of the pieces Bowie composed while in Berlin. It’s an artistic period many Bowie fans view as one ongoing experiment, and that’s evident in ‘V-2 Schneider.’
It features the unlikely combination of Bowie’s imperfect saxophone artistry, a janty bassline, and disco-style drums. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work but does.
Arguably, Bowie has done more overtly experimental work. But one of the reasons ‘V-2 Schneider’ ranks as one of the best experimental songs of all time is because it sounds like the kind of musical accident but succeeded against tremendous odds.
Torches by Youth Choir of Great Briain
Song Year: 2001
So far, our discussion of the best experimental songs of all time explores overtly experimental genres like rock or jazz.
But no genre is static. Sir Karl Jenkins' ‘The Armed Man’ is a spectacular and moving example of how even classical music can be experimental. It takes the conventional movements of a Mass setting and blends them with:
- Medieval folk songs
- Muslim call to prayer
- Sanskrit mythology
The ninth movement of ‘The Armed Man’ shows Jenkins at his experimental best. It’s a violent indictment of wartime violence that uses spikey chromaticism, percussion, and vocal sliding to evoke the devastation of war.
It segues immediately into the much gentler Agnus Dei, which, atypically, precedes the Benedictus. But while the mass might be experimental, its effect on audiences is undeniable. It’s powerful, evocative, and designed to make you weep.
Passacaglia by Herbert Kegel, Theo Adam and Konrad Rupf
Song Year: 2013
Another of the best examples of experimental classical music comes from ‘Wozzeck,’ by Alban Berg.
Berg wrote his opera based on the 12-tone system. The result is an almost entirely atonal composition that plays with classical conventions. Singers sing symphonies, sonatas, and rhapsodies.
Here, the singers sing a passacaglia. Like other forms mentioned, this would typically be performed by an orchestra. It’s also distinctive for its dissonance and atonality.
For that reason, many find Berg hard to listen to. But that’s no reason to overlook genius.
Jim Dean of Indiana by Phil Ochs
Song Year: 1969
Folk artist Phil Ochs was all about experimenting with music and pushing its boundaries. His songs are famous for their biting satire.
But in ‘Jim Dean of Indiana,’ Ochs also pushes the boundaries of folk music convention.
The imagery is unrelentingly grim, and even the title of the album ‘Greatest Hits’ is a tongue-in-cheek experiment. Ochs had no hits to speak of, and he knew it. But his determination to expose the grey underbelly of the much-mythologized Americana gives his songs a staying power their composer never anticipated.
Sister Ray by The Velvet Underground
Song Year: 1968
The Velvet Underground was always unconventional and never more so than in ‘Sister Ray.’
Among other things, it features:
- Buzz saw
The result is one of the best experimental songs of all time. It redefined garage jazz and earned the Velvet Underground their reputation as unapologetically confrontational.
It’s a busy track that stands out for being almost entirely improvisational.
Only A Northern Song by The Beatles
Song Year: 1969
‘Only A Northern Song’ was so unusual, even by Beatles standards, that it didn’t debut until two years after the band recorded it.
‘Only a Northern Song’ begins slowly but soon picks up speed. It’s helped by the harsh percussion and looping trumpets that give it a distinctive tonality. It’s a sound meant to sound as abrasive as the accent the title playfully mocks.
2000 Lightyears from Home by The Rolling Stones
Song Year: 1967
As experimentations go, The Rolling Stones' ‘2000 Lightyears from Home’ is an exercise in the nightmarish. That’s not to deride it. Instead, it’s a creative exploration of a dystopian soundscape.
Listen carefully to the instrumentation. A mellotron creates a futuristic sound, while some of the instrumentation anticipates R2D2 ten years before Lucas conceived his epic space opera.
Milestones by Miles Davis
Song Year: 1958
In ‘Milestones,’ Miles Davis experimented with the concept of modal jazz. He eschewed conventional harmony in favor of the modal system.
That may not sound experimental, but before Davis did it, modal jazz didn’t exist. For that reason alone, ‘Miles,’ later renamed ‘Milestones,’ ranks as one of the best experimental songs of all time.
Reptile Smile by Th’ Faith Healers
Song Year: 1992
Th’ Faith Healers didn’t have a long career but the work they produced was incontrovertibly experimental. ‘Reptile Smile’ is a textbook example.
Part of ‘Reptile Smile’s’ appeal is that it's danceable. Whatever else is going on, it maintains a steady, almost monotonous baseline. But it’s combined with creative vocal lines and innovative lyrics, producing one of the best experimental songs of the decade.
Geiger Counter by Kraftwerk
Song Year: 1975
‘Geiger Counter’ takes its name from the sound it creates.
Part of the experiment on display with this piece is Kraftwerk’s efforts to mimic a Geiger counter.
But there’s more than experimentation at play here. The song flows naturally into ‘Radioactivity.’ It’s not hard to see that they are more than musically innovative. They're making a statement about nuclear armament.
Effective and to the point, it’s an excellent example of one of the best experimental songs of all time.
Malo by Tim Gasiorek
Song Year: 2020
These days we don’t always think of Benjamin Britten and experimental music in the same sentence. That’s a testament to how music has evolved since Britten started composing.
At the time, though, Britten broke many of the conventional rules. His operas, ‘Albert Herring’ and ‘Turn of the Screw’ are particularly striking examples.
‘Malo’ is sung by the boy tenor playing young Miles in ‘Turn of the Screw,’ and it’s an excellent example of how Britten was reshaping musical convention.
As you listen, pay attention to how raw and exposed it is. It’s also prominently chromatic and often harmonically dissonant.
That’s appropriate because ‘Turn of the Screw’ engages with themes of pedophilia and to some degree, homophobia. But for Britten’s contemporary listener, it made for some uncomfortable listening.
Lifetime by Yves Tumor
Song Year: 2018
Yves Tumor is another artist who never stopped experimenting with music.
‘Lifetime’ is an excellent example. It blends Tumor’s tremendous vocal capability with an eerie piano line and offsets both against a propulsive R&B drum beat.
Tumor wraps the song up with a blast from the horn section, an unlikely but effective choice.
Top Experimental Songs Ever, Final Thoughts
Everyone remembers the 1960s as a time of musical innovation. But when talking about the best experimental songs of all time, it’s important to remember music is never static.
If it was, it would lose its power and efficacy with listeners. Consequently, the best experimental songs of all timespan a variety of genres. They’re jazzy, classical, or even hard rock. What they share is a strong sense of purpose and an ability to move their audience.