Everyone knows the big influential names in music: Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Radiohead, yada yada yada… Their influence is undisputed, and any sort of music fan knows their music. But there’s a whole plethora of influential artists out there that were your favorite bands’ favorite bands, and you may have never known that they existed! Some artists, no matter how ahead of their time, never seemed to hit it big. Whether it was due to their lack of popularity, stage fright, or just plain lack of a top-selling single, they never sold out stadiums like The Who or Nirvana. This list goes through some of my personal favorite influential artists that fit that exact mold (not necessarily the least popular or anything pretentious like that). If you’ve ever wondered where the revolution of electronic music was started, where so many singer-songwriters got their inspiration (besides Bob Dylan and the like), and who helped to start the post-rock genre that you listen to during late-night studying sessions, read on.
If you listen to any type of electronic music, you owe Kraftwerk for that music. Their range of influence has even been compared to that of The Beatles, and their style of music has been copied countless times. With a brand of music focused on beats and artistic experimentation, they started a revolution in music. A German-raised band, their music could be heard from the dorm rooms of German college students in the 70’s, but they never really had the big break they deserved. However, numerous artists cite them as a crucial influence, and they continually inspire musicians to experiment with electronic devices. You can listen to their influence on Coldplay here (melody from Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love”). They are incredibly catchy and experimentally-driven, and I highly recommend any listeners who like modern electronic music to check out at least a few of their timeless albums
2) Nick Drake
If you ask any sort of singer-songwriter about Nick Drake, they will likely only have good things to say. The man is a legend in the world of dorm-room musicians and folk singers alike. His music was born in his dorm room at Cambridge where he studied English literature, and it shows; his lyrics could be written down as poems. In addition, he is rather influential when it comes to alternate guitar tunings with many of his songs being written in atypical tunings. However, he was rather shy and hardly ever performed live or conducted interviews. In fact, no known footage of him exists, only photographs. He suffered with heavy depression during the last few years of his life and overdosed on antidepressants at the age of 26 (so, almost in the 27 Club), so only had the opportunity to record three albums, none of which had any large commercial success, but they are all phenomenal. However, his popularity has steadily grown after his death. Anyone that enjoys folk or an intimate singer-songwriter style of music should own them. Here‘s a personal favorite Nick Drake song of mine.
3) Talk Talk
Have you ever been up at 1:27 AM trying to finish that problem set due at 9:00 AM and needed some relaxing instrumental music to calm you nerves? So you go onto Google and search for relaxing instrumental music and stumble upon Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed You! Black Emperor? And then you promptly become obsessed with post-rock for the next couple of months? Well, many of those post-rock bands that you love were heavily influenced by Talk Talk, a new wave band from the 80’s. “But how does new wave influence post-rock?” you might ask. Originally, Talk Talk were a new wave band much like Duran Duran, but they didn’t enjoy the pressures of major record labels in the pop industry, so they decided to experiment with a completely different sound that greatly influenced post-rock for the second half of their career. I happen to enjoy both their early new wave material and their contributions to the post-rock genre, but both of their musical sides left an impact on the industry. No Doubt even made a major hit with their cover of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life”. One of my favorite Talk Talk songs, “Ascension Day”, comes from their last album, Laughing Stock.
4) King Crimson
Ok, so I’m kind of biased on this one. King Crimson has been one of the most influential progressive bands of all time. I don’t think that there is a prog-rock fan out there who would disagree with that statement. But many people don’t know about them (or at least know them more than just a name), despite their cult success in the prog-rock fanboy world. Their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, is considered by many as the first true progressive rock album, and their influence spreads over many different genres, from modern metal to math-rock.
I like to think of myself as a progressive music aficionado, so I am a huge fan of theirs. Tool has cited them as a crucial influence, and King Crimson even toured with Tool for a period during the 90’s. The evolution of math-rock that has been popularized by bands such as Don Caballero and Battles can be heard in Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Red, two of King Crimson’s finest albums. Never failing to progress their sound further, each album of theirs has a completely different tone and style. If you enjoy the wackier, experimental side of music, look no further that King Crimson. For some proto-math-rock, check out Larks’ Tongues in Aspic or the title track from their album Red.
5) Brian Eno
Brian Eno started his musical career as a synth player in Roxy Music, which enjoyed some success during the popularity of glam rock. However, he makes this list because of his solo career after Roxy Music where he was an innovator in ambient music. His style of music is minimalist and often uses different production techniques (several of which he was a pioneer in) in order to create a unique sound environment. He produced many albums during the 80’s and 90’s, including several by the Talking Heads and U2. His music is perfect for studying as it is involved enough to help one focus, but light enough so that it isn’t overpowering. If you enjoy ambient music, hopefully you already know him. If not, give him a listen. I really enjoy “Music For Airports” as well as his collaborations with Robert Fripp of King Crimson such as “No Pussyfooting”.