Bands come and go, but the classification and re-classification of their music is an exercise that never grows old. There are no hard and fast rules, no universally accepted methodology or definitions to fall back on. Music geeks are faced with bands that change their sound and/or appearance from release to release and a classification system that is completely open to interpretation.
As a starting point, how about nailing down some basic definitions and examples of musical genres? It sounds straightforward, but even that can be a challenge. There is no set number of agreed upon genres, names for the genres (or what is even considered to be a standalone genre) and the definitions themselves are frequently the subject of argument. But with the help of Canadian uber-music geek Allan Cross, along with far too many hours of trolling through music industry publications like Rolling Stone and Spin, here’s an attempt at some basic definitions. By the way, we’re sticking to the general rock world for this exercise, so for the purposes of this article only, country and/or western, jazz, adult contemporary and all sorts of other music do not exist; they’re off limits.
Emo: A style of music that’s part punk in its sound, but leaning heavily toward the emotional, melodramatic and angst-ridden end of that spectrum. In other words, melodic and moody punks. Jimmy Eat World is often lumped under the Emo banner and many people would consider Panic! At The Disco and AFI to be current occupants as well. The Smiths are another possible Emo contender.
Goth: An offshoot of the punk movement, Goth appealed to the gloomier music fan. Proper attire was built almost entirely around black and frequently extended to black-dyed hair, black lipstick, heavy use of mascara and black nail polish. In general, the look was spooky; the music could range from moody to sinister. Classic examples: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy.
New Romantics: Appearing as part of the post-punk music scene in the early 1980’s, New Romantics favoured frilly shirts, skinny ties and make-up. Classic bands in this vein included Duran Duran, Visage, Japan and Roxy Music.
Synthpop: A sound that became popular in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, Synthpop was, as the name suggests, pop-oriented music that relied heavily on the use of keyboards, drum machines and synthesisers, and tended to avoid guitars or at least relegate them to supporting instruments. Classic examples: Depeche Mode, Human League and OMD.
Heavy Metal: Gaining prominence in the late 60’s and 70’s, Heavy Metal was a “heavy” blend of rock and blues with an emphasis on guitar and drums. Bands tended to adopt a look that included long hair, T-shirts, tight jeans and leather – you’d never mistake them for New Romantics. Classic Heavy Metal bands include Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Metallica. Spinal Tap is the definitive Heavy Metal spoof band.
Heavy Metal spawned all sorts of offspring genres, of which some were, or are, popular enough to deserve their own definitions.
Hair Metal: Heavy Metal with more of a Pop or Rock flair; nothing too deep but trying to appeal to a wider audience. Hair Metal is all about appearance; a variation on the 70’s glam look featuring lipstick, tight leather, frills, bandanas, and long, spiked, teased, or tinted hair. The look tended to undermine their credibility among their more serious metal peers. Poison, Ratt and Cinderella all went for this niche. Hair Metal bands tend to suffer on the reunion circuit because, although they can maybe still play, all too often their hair has failed over the years and without that…
Nu Metal: An attempt to update Heavy Metal for the 90’s. Elements of other genres were blended in, sometimes with Rap, sometimes Grunge, perhaps a bit of Industrial or even Goth. It still relies heavily on guitar and drums, but bands veered from the classic Heavy Metal look and fancied themselves up a bit. Classic examples: Korn, Orgy and Linkin Park.
Speed Metal: Think Heavy Metal, but faster. Because Heavy Metal became too ponderous and lumbering for some, Speed Metal developed. The Heavy Metal guitar solo became more dominant within the songs and the tempos were greatly increased. Early practitioners of the style included Judas Priest and more contemporary bands such as Primal Fear have kept the tradition alive.
Progressive Rock (also known as Prog-Rock): This is what happens when a Rock band decides to get intellectual and explore concepts and musical virtuosity rather than aiming for the classic three minute pop single. Synthesizers and string instruments were often employed to fill out the sound and make things more elaborate. Drummers abandoned their drum kits for complex percussion stands. Rush, Pink Floyd and Genesis (at least early Genesis) are among the better known Prog-Rock bands.
Industrial: Just as the name suggests, Industrial music sounds big, noisy and mechanical. Not known for being particularly radio-friendly because of the unusual sounds, aggressiveness and frequent use of uncomfortable or socially-risqué subject material. Classic examples include: Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy and Ministry.
Hip Hop: Employing elements of a strong beat, sampling, rap and often the use of a turntable, Hip Hop rose from the inner cities to commercial success through the 80’s. Run DMC, Beastie Boys and OutKast are just a few examples of the vast catalogue of successful Hip Hop groups.
Punk: A style of music that became prominent in the mid to late 70’s, punk was built around the premise that anyone could and should make music, regardless of their musical skill. Punk became a sounding board for a generation of angry youth whose songs were about social statements with musical accompaniment tending toward the loud, fast and simple. Classic examples: Sex Pistols, The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers and The Ramones.
Electronic: A distinctive sound that developed in the mid to late 70’s as synthesiser technology became more widely available. Unlike Synthpop, Electronic artists seemed more interested in exploring soundscapes and stringing together interesting noises than producing singles. Kraftwerk was one of the pioneers of the Electronic movement.
Grunge: A sound that grew out of, and became synonymous with, the Seattle music scene in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s; a heavy punk meets metal kind of affair. The typical grunge uniform consisted of jeans and a short-sleeve T-shirt worn over top of a long-sleeved T-Shirt, sometimes with an ubiquitous goatee beard on the chin of male practitioners. Bonus points were awarded for wearing a red and black check lumber jacket. Examples: Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains.
Psychedelic Rock: For those who liked Rock and Heavy Metal, but found them too restrictive, Psychedelic Rock added all sorts of guitar fuzz, distortion and occasionally disjointed lyrics to create a distinct sound. Classic examples include The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, with its roots going back to the 1960’s with the Strawberry Alarm Clock and even The Beatles.
Rockabilly: When rock got just too damned complicated, some bands apparently had a hankering for the old-school, 50’s style roots rock pioneered by Elvis Presley and others. They donned rolled up jeans, white T-shirts and black leather motorcycle jackets, slicked back their hair, and pumped out the rockabilly. You won’t find a better example than The Stray Cats.
Ska: A combination of Jamaican music and rock that reached the height of its popularity in the late 70’s and early 80’s with British bands like Madness, The English Beat and The Specials. Ska was danceable, and the bands tended to be larger than typical rock outfits, employing the standard guitar/drum/bass combo but usually augmenting this with horns, an organ and keyboards, and sometimes a designated stage dancer.
Next up in the classification of music is a series of more general terms used to encompass a wider swath of music, frequently for the purpose of describing a radio station’s music format.
Alt-Rock: Starting off simply enough as an alternative to the rock music being played on mainstream radio, this used to be a somewhat rare classification, dominated by bands that could be heard on alternative or college radio stations: R.E.M., for example. But by the 1990’s, “rock” as it had been known was being left behind on radio and what was known as Alt-Rock actually began to dominate the play lists.
Rock: Once upon a time this used to be straightforward. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other bands like them, were considered Rock bands. As time passed though, these bands tended to be lumped under Classic Rock. Today there are Rock bands – Foo Fighters being a good example – but they are frequently referred to as Alt-Rock. In other words, Alt-Rock has, for a large part, usurped Rock as “rock” these days. Confused? You and me both…
Indie: Bands that are not directly affiliated with any of the major record labels, typically giving the artists greater artistic control over their music, at the cost of personally shouldering a greater percentage of the production, promotion and distribution costs of their music. College radio stations are big proponents of Indie bands, but some, like Arcade Fire, have made the jump to mainstream.
Pop: The least frightening (at least on the surface), most melodic and radio-friendly of them all, Pop artists aim to sell vast quantities of records and do so by appealing to the widest audience possible. Pop music itself changes over time, but pop stations are where you’ll hear the likes of Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Spice Girls and Girls Aloud.
Classic Rock: Now that Alt-Rock is known as Rock, and former Rock bands are sounding a little quaint to many listeners, where does that leave the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s Rock bands? They are now conveniently packed under the term Classic Rock, a massive category that can include anything from The Beatles to Van Halen.
New Wave: A marketing-derived term originally used by record companies to describe many of the Synthpop and New Romantic post-punk British bands of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. This is a very broad label and was eventually used to describe anything from Depeche Mode to A-Ha.
So it turns out that genres and classifications are constantly evolving, bands are moving between genres and even the definitions themselves are subject to interpretation.
An artist like Neil Young is a good example of the way in which musicians vex the music geeks. At the beginning of his career, Young played with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Still, Nash and Young. He would have been typically classified as a Rock musician, with a leaning toward Folk.
Then Neil went through a phase where he moved toward a Country sound, again with a touch of Folk. Harvest is pretty representative of this period, but then came Rock again with songs such as Like A Hurricane. From out of nowhere, he veered into Electronic with an album that was so unexpected, he ended up in a fight with his record label over whether the release satisfied his contractual obligation – they basically argued that Re-Ac-Tor was so out there, it “shouldn’t count as a Neil Young record.”
Young went through a bit of a Rockabilly phase, then eventually sashayed into Grunge, with his Rockin’ In The Free World single being adopted by Grunge converts as an anthem. From there, Harvest Moon swayed dangerously close to Adult Contemporary, and now he appears to be back to his Folk roots.
So how on earth do you classify Neil Young? Well, you could choose to break his career into phases and classify each of those individually, or do the safe thing and file him under Classic Rock. There’s a good weekend worth of arguing over this one, and don’t think it won’t happen.
And of course, you can combine any of the categories and classifications in an attempt to define a band. The Police, for example, defy a straightforward definition and so become a compound categorization: reggae-influenced, new wave, post-punk, power-pop trio.
Simple, isn’t it?